Way back in 2005, Michelle Obama described her husband this way:
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
I was reminded of that when I watched the former president’s interview with Dave Eggers at the recent Obama Foundation Summit. There is a portion of the discussion that Obama devotes to an explanation of his view of power and politics. It began when Egger asked about our responsibilities as citizens.
Obama’s response is to go through his various roles as community organizer, state senator, U.S. senator and then president—noting that each time there was an assumption that working at a higher level was what was required for change, but then finding the same dynamics take place in each setting.
That’s why he suggests that most of what you need to know about power and the politics of change you can learn from reading Dr. Seuss. Obama specifically mentions The Sneetches, a story where yellow bird-like creatures who have a star on their belly assume they are better than the ones who don’t. The point is that power relations don’t change according to the status of the venue, and ultimately the star-bellied Sneetches always think they should be in charge.
Obama then goes on to talk about how human beings have historically viewed power hierarchically—with one person on top ruling over the multitudes on the bottom. The revolutionary ideal on which democracy was founded is that everyone has a voice and therefore each of us has power. However, there are few endeavors you can do by yourself. The way power works at every level is that it is dependent on having a community that stands behind you. If you have that, you’ll have more power.
That is Obama articulating his foundational premise about the power of partnership vs dominance. It is also the basis on which his entire world view is the complete opposite of the current occupant of the White House.