At his blog today, Harry Boyte describes the link between Obama’s politics and the leadership styles of “civic populist” leaders like Dr. King and Saul Alinsky. Good stuff:

What is at work in Obama’s stance toward Iran, in my view–as in his magnificent speech in Cairo on June 4, expressing deep respect for and engagement with the Muslim faith and the Arab world–are the lessons he learned as a community organizer in Chicago: every culture, like every person, is immensely complex. Every community has democratic as well as authoritarian potentials. Statements from democracy cheerleaders based on simplistic divisions of the world into “good” versus “evil” can do considerable harm if manipulated by democracy’s enemies. People must be the agents of their own liberation, and the most important democratic change comes from within, not from without. A crucial role which a president can play is often not to intervene directly but rather to highlight civic stories of courage and creativity–a concept of the presidency as bully pulpit outlined by the civic engagement committee of the Obama campaign.

Obama’s approach is civic populism. It surfaces the older tradition of democratic self-assertion, collective organization, and cultural transformation represented by figures like Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, and Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Such politics of popular agency is an alternative to social democratic politics of the left and or unbridled worship of the market and capitalism on the right.

More simply, it can be called the politics of “yes we can.”

This is something that many political observers, stuck in the dualistic good versus bad politics of the past few decades, can’t seem to grasp — that a president can actually lead by facilitating instead of strong-arming.

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