In an attempt to deflect concerns about the government’s vast National Security Agency spying operation on Friday, President Barack Obama tried to empathize with critics of the program, suggesting that he, too, could be targeted once he left office. Given that he will enjoy Secret Service protection for the rest of his life, that is highly unlikely. Yet the question of his future plans is relevant–even now, early in his second term.
The same day Obama commented about the NSA scandal, Obama’s former campaign-turned-501(c)4 tax-exempt group, Organizing for Action (OfA), released a new video, detailing what activists were doing around the country. “What we want is to make sure that the voices of the people who put me here continue to be heard,” Obama says in the video, his comments interspersed among interviews with enthusiastic volunteers.
The Obama administration has coordinated closely with OfA in its recent legislative efforts, notably gun control and immigration reform. While the political impact of OfA has been limited–it was remarkably inept at pushing for gun control–the primary aim of these campaigns seems not to have been achieving a particular result, but testing and improving the fledgling organization itself in preparation for future battles.
Indeed, from an organizing point of view, it is the confrontation that counts more than the policy outcome. Robert Creamer, the Alinsky disciple and convicted felon who trained many of Chicago’s current political cohort, and who helped craft the Democrats’ political strategy on Obamacare, argues in his primer Stand Up Straight!–a “blueprint for future victories,” according to David Axelrod–that “the fight’s the thing.”
As I noted in revisiting Creamer’s ideas in February: “Notably, Creamer rebukes Democrats who might be tempted to work together with Republicans…Voters do not reward moderation or compromise, he says. What they admire, even if they disagree with you, is strength. Likewise, he says, it is better to seek confrontation than to find solutions, because voters want leaders who fight for them.”
That philosophy seems to be the key behind many of President Obama’s second-term initiatives, which have often stressed confrontation over problem-solving: gun control; the sequester; comprehensive immigration reform; cap-and-trade; and even the nomination of judges. Each of these initiatives depends on a bipartisan effort, yet in each case Obama has openly sought a dramatic confrontation with his political opponents.
Obama has applied that strategy in foreign policy, too–from the selection of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, to the nomination of the disgraced Susan Rice as National Security Adviser, and the radical Samantha Power as UN Ambassador. Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics noted the trend in her recent article, “Obama Seeks Conflict With GOP in Appointing Rice, Power,” observing that the president seems to be “fishing for new openings to paint Republicans as hazardously obstructionist and partisan.”
Seeking such battles may not be in the nation’s best interest, or even in the president’s own short-term political self-interest, but it is useful in building the enthusiasm and coherence of the president’s activist organization, which he intends to use over the long term to play a continuing role in American politics.
Obama and those closest to him, such as Chicago power broker Valerie Jarrett, have often said that he remains a “community organizer” at heart even while inhabiting the White House. As the Benghazi episode illustrates most harshly, he certainly seems less interested in governing than in campaigning. As far as he is concerned, he secured his legacy merely by winning office. His real goals are bigger and more revolutionary.