It’s a myth that presidents welcome movement pressure—and Biden is no different

Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Joe Brusky

In early 2009, as Barack Obama prepared to move into the White House, a particular historical anecdote rapidly gained in popularity, repeated in dozens of talks and articles as a parable for how supporters should respond to the new president taking office. The story related a New Deal-era encounter between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a group of activists, usually said to have been led by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In the meeting, the advocates laid out a vision of bold action for change that the president could advance with his bully pulpit and his executive power. FDR listened to their position and considered the demands they presented. Then he replied, “You’ve convinced me. I agree with what you’ve said. Now go out and make me do it.” 

In recent years, this tale has often been used to encourage social movements to maintain pressure on elected officials, even sympathetic ones, once these politicians assume power. There’s only one problem: The story isn’t true. Upon examination it has all the markings of an apocryphal legend, and it is highly unlikely that the meeting in question ever took place. Yet because the parable raises one of the most crucial issues of our current political moment — how those who voted against Trump should interact with the new administration — it is valuable to consider what the story gets right about the relationship between movements and presidents, and what it gets wrong. 

The long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out.

As Joe Biden begins his first term in the White House, the stakes of this discussion are considerable. Far from welcoming outsider pressure, politicians committed to insider dealmaking have a long track record of dismissing and disparaging critics who push them to do better — and they have often preferred to demobilize the supporters who got them elected rather than face heat from potentially unruly movements. Organizers committed to stopping such demobilization must accept that it will likely earn them the ire of the White House.

In other words, social movements can play a critical role under the new administration. But Biden isn’t going to like it.

The makings of a myth

In terms of provenance, the FDR legend rests on shaky ground. Those who cite the story invariably do so anecdotally, and historical documentation of the incident is suspiciously sparse. Journalist Martin Berg scoured several different biographies of A. Philip Randolph but could find no mention of the supposed encounter. As Berg explains: “Now, I’m from Detroit and Randolph was part of the civil rights story I grew up on, and I never heard that story until the 2008 election.” Peter Dreier, Professor of Politics at Occidental College, related the anecdote in print several times in the Obama era, but in some tellings he did so with the caveat that it “has never been documented.” Activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte stated in an interview that he heard the story from Eleanor Roosevelt herself, and this might be as close to a verification as anything on record. But even his was a second-hand retelling, vague on details, passed on many decades after the fact.Embed from Getty Images

As the tale has been repeated, the setting and the characters sometimes shift. FDR is often said to have been talking with Randolph, but other versions place figures such as the labor unionist John L. Lewis in the room instead. Still others turn the story into 1960s parable, with Lyndon Baines Johnson as the president doing the talking and Martin Luther King, Jr. the listening. Saul Alinsky biographer Nicholas von Hoffman has written that the famed community organizer was fond of using the same story, but in Alinsky’s account the politician who tells constituents to “make [him] do it” was former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.

There are important things that the “make me do it” narrative gets right. It tells us that politicians can only be counted on to push forward controversial steps toward progress when they are forced to do so. As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the moral of the story, “[P]oliticians respond to only one thing — power. This is not the flaw of democracy, it’s the entire point. It’s the job of activists to generate, and apply, enough pressure on the system to affect change.” Or as movement strategist Jonathan Matthew Smucker puts it, “We don’t persuade them morally. We persuade them with power.” The story is an injunction to keep the pressure on: It emphasizes that insistent demands from the outside continue to be essential, even when voters put the “right” people in office. For this reason, the anecdote reliably resurfaces among progressives in times when Democrats take power after periods when they have been in the opposition. 

What the story gets wrong, however, may be just as important as the valid lesson that its tellers intend to impart. The tale suggests that elected officials are apt to agree with social movements — that they respect and sympathize with those who pressure them, and that they might secretly welcome the nudge to do better. In fact, the long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out at those who demand that they take more principled or politically risky stands. The anecdote leaves out the indignation and contempt that inside-game players feel when their deal-making expertise and political hesitancy are called into question.

Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base.

In August 2010, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went on a well-publicized rant against progressive critics of the Obama administration, deriding them as members of the “professional left” who would never be satisfied with any legislative compromise. Political scientist Larry Berman noted at the time that the administration preferred its voters to be far more deferential: “From Gibbs’s perspective, and the White House perspective,” Berman explained, “they ought to be able to catch a break from people who, in their view, should be grateful and appreciative.” Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who later became mayor of Chicago, used more pointed language against those who sought to make the president and other members of his party pursue bolder policy positions. He condemned those who attacked conservative Democrats for failing to support a public option for health care reform as being “fucking retarded” (a comment for which he was later compelled to apologize to the head of the Special Olympics).  

A similar contempt for organizers who dared challenge the expertise of veteran lawmakers was on display in the Bay Area office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2019. There, the senator rebuffed a group of school-age advocates from the Sunrise Movement who prodded her to support Green New Deal legislation. In the viral video of the incident, Feinstein chided the young activists, saying “You know what’s interesting about this group: I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I know what I’m doing.” Subsequently responding to a 16-year-old, Feinstein snapped, “You didn’t vote for me” and then proceeded to dismiss the group by saying, “Well, you know better than I do. So I think one day you should run for the Senate and then you do it your way.” 

A history of contention

A look at past presidents shows that irked and dismissive attitudes are hardly atypical. LBJ’s relationship with the civil rights movement was more often characterized by conflict than cooperation. For his part, FDR was often enraged at unions who tried to force his hand in demanding stronger action on behalf of striking workers. This tension surfaced in his interactions with John L. Lewis — the president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, and a character in some versions of the “make me do it” legend. Years before their public break during FDR’s 1940 reelection campaign, the relationship between Roosevelt and Lewis was already characterized, in the words of one biographer, by “resentment for each other approaching hatred,” which generated “ever increasing hostilities.” Embed from Getty Images

During some of the most famous labor conflicts of the New Deal era, when the president would have preferred to avoid taking a stand, Lewis issued statements suggesting that the unions had the White House’s backing. This put FDR in the awkward position of having either to publicly disavow support for struggling workers or to remain silent and give credibility to Lewis’s position. Such maneuvers “repeatedly incensed the president.” In early 1937, FDR likewise grew irate when Lewis refused to accept a compromise he was brokering with General Motors executives to end the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan. Lewis held out for a better deal, and the union ultimately won one — but only after Roosevelt blasted Lewis for his arrogance and short-sightedness. In other words, on the occasions when organized workers effectively “made him do it,” FDR was rarely pleased. Rather than colluding with movements, the president repeatedly sought to dissuade them, calm their disruptive actions and bargain them down from their demands. 

The same pattern held when it came to civil rights. A transcript survives from an actual White House meeting between FDR and A. Phillip Randolph on June 18, 1941. Randolph and other civil rights leaders were planning a March on Washington to demand that the government require defense contractors to hire Black workers. As journalist and author Warren Sloat explains, the rapid expansion of war production was priming the economy, and “factories and business offices were hiring millions of workers. White workers, that is. The vast majority of Afro-Americans remained marooned in permanent unemployment. They were barred from defense plants and federal employment rolls. Labor unions banned Black people from membership.”

Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased.

Randolph’s planned march would decry this injustice, much to the dismay of the president. Roosevelt was concerned that, as biographer Jean Edward Smith writes, “A Black march in segregated Washington could easily provoke violence and at the very least would antagonize the southern leadership of his preparedness coalition.” FDR enlisted his wife Eleanor and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to talk the activists out of their plan. When that failed, he summoned Black leaders to the White House to speak with them himself.

Having won recognition of the country’s first African-American union and having once been called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Woodrow Wilson for encouraging Blacks not to fight in World War I, Randolph possessed an imposing organizing résumé. He and other leaders believed they could mobilize 10,000 people for their march, but in their meeting with FDR they were willing to bluff by projecting more. 

“Mr. President,” Randolph said as the discussion reached its climax, “our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

FDR offered to call and talk with heads of defense plants, but the civil rights leaders wanted something stronger than informal persuasion:

Philip Randolph: We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive and affirmative.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: What do you mean?

Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants.

FDR: Well, Phil, you know I can’t do that. If I issue an executive order for you, then there’ll be no end to other groups coming in here and asking me to issue executive orders for them, too. In any event, I couldn’t do anything unless you called off this march of yours. Questions like this can’t be settled with a sledge hammer….

Randolph: I’m sorry, Mr. President, the march cannot be called off.

FDR: How many people do you plan to bring?

Randolph: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

FDR: Walter, how many people will really march?

[NAACP President] Walter White: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

A week later, FDR signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in hiring in the defense industry and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee for enforcement. Randolph agreed to call off the march.

From movement to movie

Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base. To some extent, national politicians recognize the utility of social movements during elections, as they seek to galvanize their core supporters and reach out to new voters. Certainly, most Democrats — Biden included — have relied on the muscle of grassroots groups, most notably those of organized labor, to propel their field campaigns.

As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”

But once in office, they cease to see their fortunes as being connected to these movements. With their focus on maintaining power, they often view concessions to their grassroots base as threatening to their wider coalition, particularly the business interests that support them. Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased. They do not understand their ability to operate as insiders as tied to movements that shape public opinion and set the parameters for what are considered acceptable and desirable stances by elected leaders. 

Even when the policies these leaders promote are relatively good ones, the insider “I’ll take it from here” attitude promotes a dangerous demobilization. It reinforces the popularly accepted view of power that sees authority as resting solely in the hands of presidents, senators and CEOs. This sets up the perpetual return of a self-defeating cycle in which, between elections, activated constituencies are encouraged to become mere spectators in the political process. As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”

As it turns out, President Obama himself had an important role in spreading the “make me do it” story — possibly a tale he picked up in his days as an Alinskyite organizer. He recounted the anecdote on the campaign trail in 2008 and later deployed it as a response to LGBT rights organizers pushing him for executive action. But even as he ostensibly invited outside pressure, he was frustrated when he actually encountered it. Harry Belafonte, having previously shared the “make me do it” legend, testified to the disjuncture between myth and actual practice: In 2011, he recounted that he had been invited to White House events on a number of occasions in Obama’s first years in office, but never was able to interact with the president for long enough to engage in any genuine discussion. At one event, Obama approached him and Cornel West and asked when they would “cut me some slack.”

“What makes you think we haven’t?” Belafonte responded, ending the brief interaction. Embed from Getty Images

Much more significant than his off-handed comments to veteran activists is how Obama managed the once-mighty electoral movement that propelled him to the presidency. Obama’s 2008 drive had defied the rules of typically top-down presidential campaigns, empowering a vast range of grassroots activity by supporters. By deploying both ground-breaking social networking technology and mass trainings in community organizing, the campaign allowed hundreds of thousands of local boosters to take independent initiative to rally neighbors, plan their own campaign events and energize small donors. By the time Obama was elected, the campaign had amassed some critical assets: a battle-hardened core of volunteers and an email list of 13 million supporters, 4 million of whom had donated money and 2.5 million of whom had registered on the campaign’s online organizing platform. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson quoted longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins — Ronald Reagan’s national campaign director in 1984 — who marveled at the possibilities: “This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works,” he said. “No one’s ever had these kinds of resources.” 

Early on, Obama promised that the energy of the campaign would continue and the infrastructure it built would undergird a new grassroots organization; progressive planners within the campaign had envisioned it as an independent-minded operation that could hold up transformative legislation and pressure politicians to enact it. This, however, was not to be. In a February 2017 New Republic article entitled “Inside the Fall of Obama’s Grassroots Army,” journalist Micah Sifry, using previously unreported insider memos and e-mails (including documents from advisor John Podesta that were released by Wikileaks), documented that, even before Obama was elected, party insiders managed to squelch the idea of an autonomous organization. 

In the wake of the election, advisors convinced Obama to hand over the entire grassroots apparatus to the Democratic National Committee, or DNC. “The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party,” Dickinson would write. “It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.”

In the crucial months immediately after the 2008 election, the “movement moment” rapidly dissipated as supporters were left without direction about how their energies would be institutionalized. When it did launch, Organizing for America, or OFA, as the DNC-managed group became known, was a shadow of what its original advocates had imagined. With a stated goal to “mobilize supporters in favor of Obama’s legislative priorities,” it did not aim to influence the president’s agenda or “make him” take on positions more resolute than he might have otherwise preferred. To the contrary, it was designed to be a safely on-message cheering section.

“[T]he organization was mainly known for asking people to donate online and to make phone calls to Congress people,” Van Jones would later remark. “It was confined by the insider strategy, which the DNC and the White House pursued. Rather than mobilizing the people and then cutting a deal with opponents from a position of strength, the White House tended to seek a deal first and then use OFA to mobilize people to fight for the pre-compromised position. This approach may have made sense inside the halls of power, but it left many grassroots supporters cold.”

Crucially, as an arm of the DNC, the group would not challenge Democratic officials themselves, even conservative members of the party who refused to back ideas such as a “public option” for healthcare reform (which itself was a compromise position that fell far short of comprehensive “Medicare for All” proposals). Given that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate through Obama’s first year — and therefore had a once-in-a-generation chance to pass major legislation without Republican obstruction — this was a fatal shortcoming. Embed from Getty Images

Marshall Ganz, a former United Farm Workers organizer who helped engineer the campaign’s community organizing trainings, mournfully noted that Obama’s White House seemed to be “afraid of people getting out of control,” and that the president’s inner circle had been quick to neuter the campaign’s grassroots base. His feelings were echoed by others who had worked on the campaign but grew disillusioned by seeing establishment advisors with little interest in outside organizing take over. “They don’t give a crap about this e-mail list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing,” one former campaign staffer told the website TechPresident. “They want to do stuff the delicate way — the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying.” 

As it turned out, over the course of the administration’s first year, career insiders such as Rahm Emanuel would find themselves out-organized by right-wingers who channeled discontent into Tea Party groups that were unafraid to deploy disruptive protest and to target even Republican leaders they found insufficiently responsive. As Sifry concludes, “Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency — one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed.”

Biden’s relationship with social movements could be significant in determining how long his mandate endures, whether he will pursue more far-reaching reforms, and if a midterm reversal should be regarded as an inevitability.

Christopher Edley Jr., a policy adviser to the Obama campaign who had pushed for a robust and independent organization argued that the Washington, D.C.-minded political hands closest to the president adhered to a theory of change focused on insider deal-making. Therefore, they did not see how cultivating a base of outsider energy could be critical in reshaping the landscape in which elected officials operated and thereby make more substantive change possible. At the same time, they were fearful that a mobilized base could turn on powerful Democrats, or even the president himself. “If you’re not really that committed, as a matter of principle, to a bottom-up theory of change, then you will find it nonsensical to cede some control in order to gain more power,” Edley concluded. “To me, real movement building had to be about defining and advancing progressivism, not a communication strategy from the West Wing basement costumed as faux movement. The kind of movement we wanted would have helped Obama a great deal, without making it all about him.”

In a December 2010 op-ed for the Washington Post, Sam Graham-Felsen, who had been Obama’s chief blogger during the campaign, argued that the president’s supporters “were inspired by Obama’s promise to upend Washington by governing from the bottom up. ‘The change we need doesn’t come from Washington,’ Obama told them. ‘It comes to Washington.’ Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.”

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