Obama *always* stays “two steps behind them” by mattsteinglass
June 17, 2009, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Iran, President

I missed an excellent post the other day from Spencer Ackerman citing Trita Parsi of the NIAC:

It was important, Parsi said, for any non-Iranian organization wishing to show solidarity with the opposition to ensure that “anything they do is two steps behind the opposition and not two steps ahead.”

I just wanted to point out that this has always been Obama’s MO. He’s always a step or two behind where his supporters want him to be, getting pulled along by their enthusiasm, rather than out ahead of them where he might get cut off. It’s a community organizer’s MO. You never get out ahead of your constituency. Instead you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow towards where you think they should go, and allow them to carry you along behind them.

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I’ve often thought that of Obama, but you say it better than I could. Bravo.

Comment by don delny

Wise observation.

Comment by Mike

Not to beat the Lincoln comparisons into the ground, but this is exactly what Abe did. He frustrated the abolitionists time and again on slavery, but he was smart enough to understand you can’t jam change down the country’s throat. True leadership is not just knowing whether to proceed, but when.

Comment by NHCt

As a former community organizer, I’d say you are spot on. We don’t really have our own agenda, we’re worker bees at the will of the community. Nothing we do to help is ahead of what the community at large wants. We effectively are just one of the people, not like community activists who speak out based on their personal beliefs.

Comment by Ty M.

This was a theme in Conrad Black’s biography of FDR as well. He showed many examples of Roosevelt subtly guiding public opinion and then permitting himself to be carried along with it.

A less clever politician might have taken the bait and endorsed the “recount” dangled by the Guardian Council. Obama did his classic move: Pretending to stand outside the fray, while framing the debate in terms entirely favorable to one side. When he stresses the right of people to peaceably demonstrate, and connects the legitimacy of a regime to its’ tolerance of protest, he checkmates the Ahmadinejad forces. And he does it so smoothly that you never even see him touch a playing piece.

Comment by Laertes

I always thought he was intentionally two days behind the news. Everyone would complain about how he had dropped the ball, hadn’t responded quick enough.

In fact what he is doing is waiting for the debate to fully develop, like a law professor. Let everyone stake out a position, or just wait until there is some consensus on what is important. At that point, when everyone else has shown their cards, Obama steps in (after being asked and begged for days) and reframes the debate.

But I don’t get the sense that he is doing this out of indecision, but simply to provide space for debate. If he was first out of the gate, his supporters would parrot his words without understanding them. His enemies would simply attack his position without needing to state their own position, without any need to defend their ideas.

Yes, Obama is always “two steps behind”, or maybe he just takes the advantage of prosecutor who gets the last word in closing arguments.

Comment by tomj

Very apt. I hope you’re right, especially with regards to his stance on gay and lesbian rights. He seems to have back tracked on where he was during the election, making affirmative policy statements on DADAT and then reneging on that promise.

Comment by gambypants

To further agree with Laertes, FDR once told a group within his coalition: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Another point of view is “Rome was not built in a day.”

Comment by Yeti_Schmeti

It is called “Leadership”. We have not seen it for a long time in American politics. Obama’s oponents cannot even identify it, much less replicate it.

Comment by Larry Geater

Great Stuff on Obama’s M.O. – try Bernard Avishai’s line on the Carior speech

Comment by Benj D.

As we say in MA; that’s a wicked smah’t post.

Comment by enigma3535

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Obama is clearly several steps behind on the economy. In fact he is so far behind, you can’t even hear him. The stimulus package has yet to stimulate. It was sold based on the promise that it was needed to keep unemployment below 8%. Unemployment is now over 9% and projected to be over 10%. In this case, I guess that you can say that he is 2 percentage points behind his projection.

I hope that he doesn’t fall any further behind.

Comment by BH

“There go my people. Let me pass, I have to follow them, I am their leader.”

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (often incorrectly attributed to Ghandi)

Comment by Catfish N. Cod

Maybe it’s a little of the Taoist saying in action: “To lead the people, walk behind them”- I’d like to think so.

Comment by missjeff

I think this is his MO about the gay rights. They DON’T have the votes. Let’s recall NONE of the repub voted on the stimulus!They say NO just to say NO! So, let the GAYS FIGHT for themselves. Even if they are going after him. he doesn’t care. When he thinks he has the vote, he’ll introduce the bills.

Comment by bijou

Just like Hoover, if you believe the article in the new Harper’s Mag.

“Obama’s failure would be unthinkable. And yet the best indications now are that he will fail, because he will be unable – indeed he will refuse – to seize the radical moment at hand.”

Comment by Marilyn

President Obama is also not getting enough credit for his Cairo speech (as well as the earlier speech in Turkey).

If you look carefully at the text of these two speeches — most importantly, the Cairo speech — his support for the Iranian people is inherent. Very, very subtle, but it’s there.

The icing on the cake was the open, direct admission of the U.S. responsibility for the 1953 Iranian coup.

The President’s speech in Cairo was broadcast throughout the Arab/Muslim world and he deserves at least a little credit for setting the tone for what we are now seeing in Iran.

Comment by WiscyJar

It’s never really been about him anyway. Although there are plenty of people who are simply taken on by the legend, the suaveness, his speeches, for the most part it’s really about people who want to **gradually** change the country & world for the better.

Comment by Daniel

So John Edwards or Fred Thompson would have had the same effect? In Cairo, for example?

I’m not saying this isn’t ultimately the will of the people, but it is silly to think Obama is not utterly making it possible.

Comment by mattw

Good Evening,

I just located your blog this evening and I am glad to see your interpretation of President Obama and his “MO.” I am so tired of liberal pundits complaining only 6 months into his presidency. You would never see the Republican pundits doing this in public. They may not have agreed with President Bush, but they DID not express their anxiety so publicly.

We as Obama supporters do not necessarily need to support him blindly, but when we disagree we need to be careful in how we express the disagreement with the policy instead of disagreeing with him and calling him WRONG (like some pundits do on T.V. every night).

Comment by Josephine

Sound’s like he’s acting as a good sheperd. A true leader will stand back to make sure no one is left behind.

Comment by Anaru


Obama is just a very cautious man. Who else would have so many of Bush policies regarding torture and transparency etc. continue unabated?

Comment by gregor


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“Instead you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow towards where you think they should go, and allow them to carry you along behind them.”

Sounds kind of manipulative. Make them think it was all their idea, and that I am supporting them rather than merely an idea, but if it fails the onus is on them and I still come off like a hero (or so I hope).

Comment by Ron Henzel

But it is all their idea. I don’t know: when I’ve moderated a panel or chaired a meeting, I’ve found that my role has been strikingly different than when I’m just one of the discussants. As a discussant, you can launch whatever bombshells you want. As moderator or chair, you need to leave a lot more initial space for people to declare their own views, and you don’t want to abuse your power to blast through your own position. But you do have some targets you want to reach by the end of the meeting. That means most of what you’re doing is trying to focus the discussion to get more or less where you need to go, rather than just making speeches about where you need to go that will naturally elicit resistance from anyone who disagrees with you, even on minor details. I’m not very good at doing this, but fortunately Obama is.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I think sometimes it is hard to parse the difference between the politician (i.e., opportunistic, using the LGBT community as a bargaining chip, etc.) and genuine belief and intention implicit in those “true leaders” who follow.

Conceptually, the latter is a pleasant thought–but I think it is too generous. Yes, I believe he believes in LGBT rights, for example–but not very strongly. (LGBT: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered)

But I judge him by his actions. Pastor Rick Warren? Larry SUMMERS??? The wars continue, Guantanamo remains open, single payer is not even CONSIDERED. He follows the Chicago Economic School, despite its dismal failure.

He needs to display a bit more audacity. This belief in a mysterious MO is losing its credibility.

Comment by George

I found you via Scott who’s the go-to guy about web stuff on ArtFair Insiders, and am I ever glad I did. I have fwd you on to my Obama compatriots here in NC as you so articulately express O’s style…never the reactionary, always the rationalist. I feel better “armed” for having read this!

Comment by whitney

Only people with intelligence will be able to understand the actions of an intelligent President. Good observation.

And to those that question the President on the economy? Check the stock market since Mr. Obama was sworn in please. You can’t clean up the Exxon Valdez spill in three months.

Thank you.

Comment by tzugidan

Excellent idea, there is no doubt about the US president’s intelligence!

Comment by Mental Mist

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“you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow towards where you think they should go”

Dema-what? Dema-who?

Comment by Knemon

i agree totally. some of these replies are AMAZING. i posted the link for this blog post on twitter hope you don’t mind.

Comment by William H. Swagspeare

Very apt post, Matt. Much as I’d like for BHO to enact the gay rights agenda (and a host of other agendas) overnight, it would be silly to think that he would be able to do so. In the meantime, he keeps taking *very concrete* steps to enact change (e.g., as many benefits for gay spouses of federal workers as possible, given the constraints of the law.) Much as I like grand statements, I really appreciate someone who is willing to sweat the details of!

Comment by Richard Jasper

Be lucky you have a president whose not a step or two behind, rather no steps in the direction of the people at all!

Comment by Stacey Woods

I’m going to quote you next time one of the very vocal Obama haters gets frisky around me!

Thanks for such a simply stated, poignant take on the matter.

Comment by Forrester McLeod

Some of you get it, some of you don’t. Obama is an intelligent man, and he is here for the American people. At the end of the day, we need to be able to negotiate with WHOMEVER wins. Regardless if you like them or not.

Comment by lyricalqt

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As the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle said, you people and Obama ought to get a room.

Comment by Owyhee

[…] Obama *always* stays “two steps behind them” I missed an excellent post the other day from Spencer Ackerman citing Trita Parsi of the NIAC: It was important, Parsi […] […]

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[…] He’s always a step or two behind where his supporters want him to be, getting pulled along by their enthusiasm, rather than out ahead of them where he might get cut off. It’s a community organizer’s MO. You never get out ahead of your constituency. Instead you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow towards where you think they should go, and allow them to carry you along behind them.Blogger on Obama’s stance […]

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