Richard Cohen in the Washington Post waxes on about Barack Obama being a community organizer;
In the biographies of both presidential candidates are episodes of pure wonderment. No man can read about McCain's time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and not wonder, "Could I do that?" For most of us, the answer—the truthful answer—is no.Oh, boy... First, Obama wasn't "already making good money as a financial researcher," his one private sector job was as a copy editor for a newletter sweat shop notorious for paying low salaries. (He also worked for a Ralph Nader project to get Harlemites to recycle—very SWPL) And his pay in Chicago in the 1980s ($35k after 3 years) wasn't all that bad by the standards of Chicago in the 1980s.
For Obama, that episode has nothing to do with physical courage but much to do with moral commitment. At age 22—a graduate of Columbia University and already making good money as a financial researcher, he walked away to work with the unemployed and alienated in Chicago. Obama, who later went to Harvard Law School, knew precisely what a valuable commodity he was and how much money he could have made. He turned away from all that—or, at least, postponed it, and not because community organizing was the route to political success. (Just name one.) Once again, ask yourself if you would have done it.
Obama's less than spectacular entrance to the New York job market is linked to his less than spectacular grades at Columbia, which, I would speculate, were linked to what seems like a long-lasting depressive episode he underwent during his NYC years (1981-1985), which was perhaps linked to the death of his father in 1982. That's a lot of links, but it fits together with the sour tone of the New York section of Dreams from My Father,. This rather monastic, asocial period wasn't unproductive for Obama—he lost weight, stopped drinking, jogged a lot, read Nietzsche, and generally reinvented himself from the cheerful kid he had been to the ultra-ambitious, cautious, manipulative person he is now.
And, contra Cohen, being a black activist, like Obama was, is a very good entryway to being a black politician, which soon became Obama's ambition—to be mayor of Chicago. People like Richard Cohen don't hear about it much because black politicians who start out as black activists typically hit a glass ceiling at the level of Member of the House or mayor of a decaying city—they can win in districts gerrymandered to produce black legislators or in heavily black cities, but not at the statewide level. For example, Obama lost in the 2000 Democratic House primary to the incumbent Representative, Bobby Rush, who had been a Black Panther. On the Black Enough scale, Black Panther beat Black Activist in the eyes of black voters. In the eyes of white voters, however, the kind of black politicians created by the Voting Rights Acts' gerrymandering to forge majority minority districts are unattractive race men.
So, Obama, realizing he wasn't black enough to reach glass ceiling open to conventional black politicians, the did an about-face in 2001 and re-gerrymandered his state senate district to include a large fraction of white Lakefront Liberals on the North Side.
Barack Obama's three years as a community organizer are comparable in some ways to Mitt Romney's 2.5 years as an LDS missionary.
KUTV in Salt Lake City reported in 2007:
But [Mitt Romney] credits his path in life, in part, to changes he saw in the nation while he was away on his mission in France — at the height of unrest throughout the world.
As written in the International Herald Tribune on Wednesday, Romney was called to serve an LDS mission in France between June 1966 and December 1968 — a time when the United States saw turbulence over the Vietnam War.
While overseas, Romney was not privy to the happenings at home because missionaries are discouraged from reading newspapers, watching television or making telephone calls. According to the article, Romney staunchly defended the Vietnam War while trying to spread the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—partly because of his conservative nature and partly because of his patriotic conviction to stand behind the actions of his homeland.
Romney and his companions spent 12 hours a day knocking on doors throughout France, which often led them to defend the Vietnam War. At the time his father, Michigan governor George Romney, was running for the Republican presidential nomination as an anti-war candidate—a detail unknown to Mitt.
Romney eventually rose to a position of power during the France mission, leading him to oversee a group of 175 people. Peers recall that he constantly vented new ideas to efficiently tune their mission work — some worked, most didn't.
Romney's personal sacrifices of comfort sound larger than Obama's (no media!), while their performance was similar (strong in a relative sense—they both climbed the hierarchy—but weak in an absolute sense — they didn't accomplish much).
The main difference, of course, is that Obama has constantly milked his community organizing days for electoral advantage while Romney didn't get much of anything from his mission outside of from Mormons. If the general public was aware of it, it probably hurt him. Compared to where John McCain spent 1966-1968, Romney's monastic existence doesn't cut much ice. But even if McCain had just been in the Navy rather than a POW, or even if he was just running against Giuliani and Huckabee, this part of Romney's biography wouldn't have done him any good with the voters, reasonably, ask: "What's in it for us? You were off promoting your own group—why should we care?"