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World Community Organizer

By Dan Froomkin
11:49 AM ET, 04/ 3/2009


Obama arrives for his G-20 press conference yesterday. (Kirsty Wigglesworth - AP)

Barack Obama showed the world a profoundly new style of American leadership yesterday.

Obama emerged from the G-20 summit in London, where the leaders of the world's largest economies agreed to what he called "an unprecedented set of comprehensive and coordinated actions," talking about his commitment "to respecting different points of view and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms."

His approach struck a very different note from his predecessor, the would-be Texas cowboy whose "with us or against us" attitude led to unilateral foreign adventurism and a diminishing of America's standing in the world.

But what kind of leadership is it when you don't dictate terms? How do you get things done?

Obama's style is very much a reflection of his background in community organizing, a process that starts with listening before moving on to forging consensus and taking collective action.

Apparently it works on the international stage, too -- though I expect it doesn't hurt if you're the charismatic and hugely popular new leader of the world's only superpower and (despite everything) largest economy.

Resolving disputes is another part of Obama's style, and it turns out he did that in London as well. Jake Tapper reported for ABC News that Obama "played peacemaker in a spat between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao, President of the People's Republic of China.

"In the final plenary session among the G-20 leaders, Sarkozy and Hu were having a heated disagreement about tax havens.

"France and other European nations have been pushing for rules and regulations to apply to various tax havens.... But Chinese leaders fear a crackdown would hurt banking centers in Macao, Shanghai and Hong Kong....

"The exchange between Sarkozy and Hu got so heated, said a source -- who is not a member of the Obama administration -- it was threatening the unity of the G-20 leaders' meeting....

"Mr. Obama, according to this account, stepped between the two men, urging them to try to find consensus, and giving them a 'pep talk' about the importance of working together."

A senior Obama administration official "said that Mr. Obama pulled Mr. Sarkozy aside, took him to a corner, 'and discussed possible alternatives,'... Once they arrived at one, President Obama 'sent a message to the Chinese' that a counter-offer was on the table."

Then "Obama, with the assistance of translators, suggested that he and Mr. Hu have a conversation as well. They, too went to the corner to talk. After a few minutes, Mr. Obama called upon Mr. Sarkozy to join them.

"'Translators and sherpas in tow, they reached an agreement,' the official said. 'There was a multiple shaking of hands.'"

Writing in the Guardian, Patrick Wintour, Nicholas Watt and Julian Borger, quote Obama as saying at one point: "Let's get this all in some kind of perspective guys."

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "It was a remarkable stroke of personal diplomacy by a new president who's making his debut this week on the world stage."

The wide-ranging deal struck by the G-20 didn't represent any sudden turnarounds by any of the world leaders, but there was an unexpectedly large -- $1.1 trillion -- commitment to the International Monetary Fund, to provide financial aid to the global economy. And there was the birth of what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a "new consensus" that envisions not just greater cooperation between nations, but greater government oversight over the financial institutions that, left to their own devices, trashed the world economy.

Steven Pearlstein writes in his Washington Post business column: "While President Obama may have overstated things a bit when he declared it a 'turning point' for the now-shrinking global economy, the meeting did manage to boost the confidence of financial markets, inject another trillion dollars into the financial system and provide needed political cover for world leaders to take unpopular actions back home....

"All in all, a pretty successful opening-night performance for President Obama on the international economic stage. He achieved most of what he wanted while allowing others to claim victory and allowing the United States to shed its Bush-era reputation for inflexibility and heavy-handedness. And by the standards of past summits, this one was full of accomplishment."

And Anthony Faiola and Mary Jordan write in The Washington Post: "The $1.1 trillion pledged by world leaders to combat the worst economic crisis since World War II effectively amounts to a rescue package for both poor and rich countries, potentially including the United States."

Some observers, however, are expressing disappointment that Obama wasn't more assertive. The Washington Post editorial board writes that "the summit would have benefited from a greater focus on the U.S. priority of fixing the crisis we are in before moving on to protecting against the next one."

Similarly, the New York Times editorial board thinks Obama should have pushed harder to get European leaders "to commit to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional fiscal stimulus that the world economy needs to pull out of its frighteningly steep dive...

"After years of watching former President George W. Bush hector and alienate this country’s closest friends, we were relieved to see Mr. Obama in full diplomatic mode. We fear, however, that this is not the time or the issue on which to hold back. If world growth continues to decline — and all signs suggest that it will — the president will have to take on this fight soon."

In previous posts, I've discussed the media's intense focus on winners and losers, and noted that Obama on Wednesday scolded the press corps for trying to "inject some conflict and some drama into the occasion."

That tension continued to be apparent at yesterday's press conference. Obama repeatedly talked about the long haul, the big picture and the value of collaboration, to the evident frustration of a press corps that wanted to see immediate results, to know how yesterday's actions would help American families, and to hear who won and who lost.

"Our problems are not going to be solved in one meeting. They're not going to be solved in two meetings," Obama said.

Asked to rate his own performance, Obama replied: "Well, I think we did okay... Overall, I'm pleased with the product. And I'll leave it to others to determine whether me and my team had anything to do with that. All right?"

Yeah but: "What concrete items that you got out of this G-20 can you tell the American people back home who are hurting?"

Obama replied: "Well, as I said before, we've got a global economy. And if we're taking actions in isolation in the United States but those actions are contradicted overseas, then we're only going to be halfway effective, maybe not even half."

OK but: "In the spirit of openness with which you say you're going to run your administration, could you give us an insight into an area or areas where you came to London wanting something and didn't get it, where you compromised, where you gave something away to achieve the wider breakthrough agreement?"

Obama declined. "I'd rather not specify what those precise items would be, because this is a collective document."

Well, can you talk about how different you are from your predecessor?

Obama wouldn't entirely bite, although he noted "that we exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize that the world is a complicated place, and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer."

Can you say for sure you've averted an economic depression?

"In life, there are no guarantees. And in economics, there are no guarantees…. I think the steps in the communique were necessary. Whether they're sufficient, we've got to -- we've got to wait and see…

"[Y]ou've got a sick patient. I think we applied the right medicine. I think the patient is stabilized. There's still wounds that have to heal. And, you know, there's still -- you know, there's still emergencies that could arise. But I think that you've got some pretty good care being applied."

Has America's power diminished on the world stage?

"I just think in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions. Just a -- just to try to crystallize the example, there's been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods. 'Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.' Well, if there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's a -- that's an easier negotiation. (Laughter.) But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."

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