On October 16th, I picked up a new book by Bob Kuttner (longtime political journalist and co-founder of The American Prospect), titled Obama’s Challenge. I seldom buy brand-new books at retail—I like to wait until I can get them discounted or used—but this one seemed very much of the moment.

Indeed, I concluded with amazement that Kuttner must have finished writing it and had it rushed through production within the preceding three weeks or so:  he wrote in detail about the ongoing economic collapse that began in mid-September, and moreover wrote with the assurance that Obama would win the election and be the next president. In the last few weeks there has been no end of commentary, analysis, and speculation about what Obama can and should do, policywise, not just after his inauguration but right now… but Kuttner beat everyone out of the gate.

I’m going toss a few ingredients of my own into that bubbling brew of public discourse, in a linked series of posts starting with this one, today. My thoughts and expectations are evolving, and they may as well do so in print. And for a starting point, one could certainly do worse than to consider Kuttner’s book, and the distinctive historical perspective he brings to the topic.

We live in a cynical age—recent times have rewarded that sort of disposition—and there was no shortage of cynics who doubted Obama could ever get this far. A mere four years ago, Fred Barnes could write confidently that “Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” relegating to the dustbin “the New Deal idea that ‘federal power would improve [people’s] lives.’ ” Just two years ago, even after the Democrats’ midterm victories, a comprehensive nationwide poll by Survey USA showed that in a head-to-head matchup between Obama and McCain, Obama would win Illinois, Hawaii, D.C…. and nothing else.

But times do change, often faster than conventional wisdom can anticipate… and it’s in such turbulent times that someone with the vision to see a little further ahead can rise to the fore. It’s interesting to note that the presidents widely considered the best in this country’s history have repeatedly served right on the heels of those deemed the worst, emerging in just such times. As Churchill put it (more or less), “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” After James Buchanan came Abraham Lincoln. After Herbert Hoover came FDR. And after George W. Bush… comes Barack Obama. Whether he will be counted among the great ones remains to be seen, but the potential is there. Paradoxically, he’s stepping into a situation where the criteria for success are at once exceedingly low (given where the outgoing administration has set the bar, he could hardly do worse) and exceedingly high (given the height of the present stakes—to an extent he couldn’t have foreseen when he started running—and thus also of public expectations).

This is the context with which Kuttner starts his discussion. He begins with the premise that Obama has

…the potential to be a transformative progressive president. [One] who profoundly alters American politics and the role of government in American life—one who uses his office to appeal to our best selves to change our economy, society, and democracy for the better.

Transformative change is never an easy thing, but at times of turmoil it often moves surprisingly quickly from seeming impossible, to necessary, to inevitable. I certainly agree that Obama, with the public behind him, has the capacity to bring it about. This country, and indeed the world, needs radically new approaches to solving the problems looming over us. And as Kuttner reminds us, in this context,

Radical does not mean outside the mainstream. It means perceiving, as a leader, that radical change is necessary, discerning tacit aspirations and unmet needs in the people, and then making that radical change the mainstream view for which the people clamor.

In this fertile political moment even utterly conventional, conservative pundits like David Brooks are longing for this kind of governance, although Brooks strives (awkwardly) to frame it in safe and familiar terms:

…right now I’m dreaming of the successful presidency this country needs. … The people [in the White House] will be ostentatiously pragmatic and data-driven. They’ll hunt good ideas like venture capitalists. They’ll have no faith in all-powerful bureaucrats issuing edicts from the center. Instead, they’ll use that language of decentralized networks, bottom-up reform and scalable innovation.

Most of all, they’ll take significant action on the problems facing the country without causing a mass freak-out among voters to the right of Nancy Pelosi.

They’ll do this by explaining to the American people that there are two stages to their domestic policy thinking, the short-term and the long-term.

The short-term strategy will have two goals: to mitigate the pain of the recession and the change the culture of Washington. … The long-term strategy would be about restoring fiscal balances and reforming fundamental institutions.

Or, as Kuttner puts it,

A progressive with the skill to reassure conservatives and moderates might be just what the political moment requires.

There is a proven method to building public will, and Obama demonstrated during the campaign that he understands how to make it work, at both the grass-roots level and a larger scale. It involves (1) framing the problem, (2) building awareness, (3) sharing information about what can be done, (4) creating the impetus for action, and (5) evaluating the results and reinforcing success. It’s not about pre-compromising, making “triangulating” moves toward the always-elusive “center,” as the Clinton administration did. It’s about shifting and re-framing the public discourse, disarming or co-opting your opponents, and moving the (perceived) center toward what needs to be done.

Obama has already put this approach to work, and beaten the odds and defied the cynics, just by making it this far. As Roger Cohen wrote on the day after the election,

Obama made a simple bet and stuck to it. If you trusted in the fundamental decency, civility and good sense of the American people, even at the end of a season of fear and loss, you could forge a new politics and win the day. …

Obama’s idea, put simply, was that America can be better than it has been. It can reach beyond post-9/11 anger and fear to embody once more what the world still craves from the American idea: hope.

America can mean what it says. It can respect its friends and probe its enemies before it tries to shock and awe them. It can listen. It can rediscover the commonwealth beyond the frenzied individualism that took down Wall Street.

The question now is how he’ll use that new politics, that simple idea, not merely to govern but to lead, to guide this country in the new direction it so desperately needs. The cynics are already prophesying that he can’t, or won’t. I think he may well prove them wrong again.

It’s been easy to forget in the Bush years, but the presidency carries with it moral authority. The presidents who have risen to greatness in past crises have understood what that means. To turn again to Kuttner’s words,

Forces that [resist] reform are, by definition, immensely powerful. Reform entails mobilizing the less powerful, sometimes lending presidential authority to a brave minority, as Lincoln and Roosevelt did; and sometimes building support among the people almost from scratch.

And there he underscores a point that we need to keep at the front of our minds:  success depends not just on Obama but on all of us. As the blogger Digby reminds us (starting with an anecdote from William vanden Heuvel),

“FDR was, of course, a consummate political leader. In one situation, a group came to him urging specific actions in support of a cause in which they deeply believed. He replied: ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.’

“He understood that a President does not rule by fiat and unilateral commands to a nation. He must build the political support that makes his decisions acceptable to our countrymen. He read the public opinion polls not to define who he was but to determine where the country was – and then to strategize how he could move the country to the objectives he thought had to be carried out.”

…In the current political world, I believe that Obama and the Democrats need a strong left wing that is out there agitating in order that we can continue to build popular support and also give them a political excuse to do things that the political establishment finds too liberal. Being cheerleaders all the time, however enjoyable that is, is not going to help them. Leaving them out there with no left wing cripples them.

…Obama needs room to govern. A big historic victory, a village predisposed to at least give him a chance and a set of very serious crises to confront will give him that. [Our] role is to make sure that the progressive agenda is pushed as well, and to make sure that the village knows that we are watching.

The days ahead will place many conflicting demands both on Obama and on us. In related future posts, I’ll start to explore what this means in more practical terms of politics and policy.

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