History as S. Side organizer in '90s helps him connect in Iowa--Barack Obama often cites his work as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side as part of his credentials for the White House.
While many have scoffed at this, thinking community work is not in the making of a U.S. president, it has helped Obama feel comfortable reaching out to individual voters in Iowa.
In fact, one could say Obama's experience as a low-paid community worker provides the philosophical basis of his politics of hope.
Here's what he told the Chicago Reader in 1995, before he ran for the Illinois Senate: "The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted. People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change."
This humanistic riff has become part of the stump speech he gives throughout Iowa.
"What is unique about America is that we want those dreams for more than just ourselves -- we want them for other people, as well," he told an audience in Bettendorf in November. "When our fellow Americans are denied the American dream, our own dreams are diminished."
Twelve years ago, he told the Reader: "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?
"As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer.
"We could come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community.
"We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials accountable for their actions."
Hillary Clinton didn't 'get' it
Obama's thinking about the role of a political leader as teacher, advocate and mediator has remained consistent since he entered politics. He has always espoused the politics of hope, even if he only came up with this nifty way of saying it recently.
Obama advisers who were scouting Iowa last January, before he even announced his run for president of the United States, figured it was necessary from the get-go to build community links across the state. By last June, there were 27 offices. Now there are 36.
The campaign advisers were also indoctrinated into the arcane aspects of Iowa politics by some of Obama's early, high-profile supporters, such as Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. "They knew the key to success, a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, is a local organization based on local relationships," says Josh Earnest, communications director at Obama's Des Moines headquarters.
A New York Times article on Wednesday observed that Hillary Clinton didn't really "get" these vagaries of campaigning in Iowa before she announced her mission to become president.
This became clear to me as I have toured the state, noting how many Obama people and John Edwards' helpers were on the ground compared with Clinton's. And while she has recently sent some of her advisers and campaign workers into the state and hired 100 more people, it may be too late.
'Momentum ... hard to stop'
Having never campaigned in Iowa with her husband -- he skipped the caucuses there when he first ran for president in 1992 because noted Democratic Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was also running -- Clinton thought name recognition would be enough.
Now the polls are showing her neck and neck with Obama both in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he continues to reach out to individual voters, offering precinct parties tonight after the debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register.
The Obama team has logged all 30,000 names they collected after Oprah Winfrey's weekend appearances into a database and contacted Iowans on the list with invitations to one of the 1,000 precinct parties.
If Obama wins Iowa, it will not be because of arguments about experience or electability. It will be because of his grass-roots efforts. John Norris, an Obama supporter and John Kerry's Iowa state director in 2004, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday that "anytime momentum occurs in the last three weeks [of an election], it's hard to stop." And that's what Obama has now. Momentum.