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the transformer?

“The change we need isn’t just about new programs and policies,” President-elect Obama says. “It’s about a new attitude. It’s about new politics.”

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“The change we need isn’t just about new programs and policies,” President-elect Obama says. “It’s about a new attitude. It’s about new politics.”

Well, here we are. Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States of America.

He changed forever how politicians will run for the presidency. He leveraged the Internet, text-messaging and other technologies to develop a large base of support and raise huge sums of money. And he shattered a towering psychic barrier — yes, in America, an African-American child can now grow up to be president.

Yet, will he transform the presidency itself? Even after all the goodwill and the happy tears of the past few days, that is no sure thing.

Transformative presidents fundamentally change the office. They may be great (Washington, Lincoln, FDR) or merely good (Kennedy, Reagan), but they all redefine the nature of the presidency for those who come after.

"The symbolic part is done the minute the election results are counted. It's done, and it seems important and it will forever be written about," Nicholas Lemann, author of the Promised Land, the Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, said of Obama's singular win.

But running for the presidency as a transformative figure and winning is far different from changing the office itself. A few key moments will offer early signs of Obama's abilities to do both.

"I would really watch the inaugural address" for its tone, emphasis and reach, said Lemann, adding that "the first semester is really important. What has happened by July 4th of the first year? How high does the president set the bar early?"

Transformation, he said, is "hard to measure in real time, but at the end of one term or two terms, did this person cause major policy changes? Was the social compact changed? Was America's place in the world changed in a fundamental way?"

Every significant president who transformed the office rose to the challenge of his times, whether it was establishing a newly founded country after a revolution (Washington), leading a nation through civil war (Lincoln), shepherding a frightened people through the Great Depression and a world war (FDR) or setting the table for the collapse of the Soviet Union (Reagan). Indeed, some argue that only in extraordinary times can a president truly transform the office.

In his meteoric rise, candidate Obama campaigned for change as a transcendent postboomer, for a sense of common purpose in one united America. But his policies and approaches tend toward the centrist and pragmatic — certainly not a bad thing, but not necessarily transformational either. And it is not obvious, even with the economic crisis and America at war in two places abroad, that the times themselves will raise up a transformative president.

As editor of a newspaper in the first-primary-in-the-nation state of New Hampshire, Mike Pride saw every major candidate up close from Ronald Reagan forward. He thinks Reagan was the most transformative, and it was about perception.

"His biggest promise as a candidate and accomplishment as president was changing the way most Americans thought about the country," said Pride, who retired this year from the Concord Monitor.

"In 1980, we were still in a funk about the Vietnam War and Watergate. It is hard to overstate how badly many people felt about the country, its direction and its promise.

"For my taste people swung too far toward showy patriotism in the Reagan years, but people needed reminding that American ideals were nothing to be ashamed of. Reagan brought that about."

In that sense, if people perceive that Obama enters the White House as a president of hope, he has a chance to change the office.

Of course, Obama is transformative by his birth, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. Race is so woven into the fabric and history of America that Obama cannot be "postracial": How he has viewed himself, and how others have reacted to him throughout his life, has been fundamentally influenced by the prism of color — whether he wishes it or not. It has put up barriers and it has opened doors. To say that a white Obama would not be in the same place is to miss the point. A white Obama would be someone else altogether.

"Consider this fact: The most famous black man in America isn't dribbling a ball or clutching a microphone," Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose piece on Bill Cosby appeared in Perspective in May, wrote in a recent essay in Time.

Coates continued: An "Obama win would be just a start. Surely the next day we would wake up with the scoreboard still the same. Our life spans would still be shorter, our prison rolls longer and our net worths lower than the average American's. But the psychic impact could be enormous. Young blacks, like me, in particular lived with the burden of having dropped the ball that the civil rights generation advanced. Obama is our particular vindication, in that he can't win without the votes of young blacks and in his specific mannerisms. He is the start of our contribution to the fight."

So by helping a people and a country to see a new range of possibility, Obama will transform the presidency simply because of who he is. That's no small thing in an America moving rapidly toward becoming a majority minority country. Ultimately he will have to do more to govern transformatively, but he shares some traits of presidents who have done well.

"The best presidents were intellectually curious, were good communicators, advanced a vision that proved beneficial for the nation, availed themselves of the technological innovations of their times to advance their agendas, drew upon the best talent available, and related to people from all walks of life," Alvin Felzenberg, author of the Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't), said in an interview on the Freakonomics blog.

"The worst presidents were 'been there, done that' know-it-alls, were set in their ways, bore grudges, grumbled in public about all the burdens of office, had a limited world-view, and stretched the powers of their office for power's sake."

By those measures, the chances for Obama — though young and inexperienced — to transform the presidency look promising. And being relatively new to Washington can be an advantage. Many transformative presidents come from outside the system. (Lincoln was a prairie lawyer who had served one term in Congress years before. Reagan had no Washington experience.) It can be hard to shake the foundations of a system that produced you in the first place.

Only two years ago — Oct. 29, 2006 — Perspective compared Obama and John Kennedy just as Obama was becoming prominent on the national scene. (He was months away from announcing his candidacy.)

Kennedy, as the first Catholic elected president, transcended the religion of his birth and became — at least after his death — a cherished president whose memory spurred a young generation to action, a government to pass civil rights legislation, and a nation to go to the moon.

He transformed the presidency not only by showing that a Catholic could lead a secular country but by bringing youth and vigor to the Oval Office. No longer was the leader necessarily the oldest man in the room. For the first time, youth could be an asset.

In that comparison two years ago, we noted that "the charismatic Obama on some level seems to be all things to all people."

And that's a danger now. He may be the vessel into which people pour their dreams and will face expectations that cannot be met by any mortal.

But he may be able to withstand all that and transform the office. "Character is destiny," New York Times columnist David Brooks said approvingly of Obama on election night.

Pride, the New Hampshire editor, agrees that "personal makeup has a lot to do with it. For instance, Jimmy Carter's insistence on micromanaging offset any chance he had to claim a mandate and use the goodwill of the electorate to move programs forward. Reagan was able to combine an ability to go around Congress to advance broad ideals, giving him the political muscle to get legislation through."

Obama himself in the past few days has said "the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies. It's about a new attitude. It's about new politics — a politics that calls on our better angels instead of encouraging our worst instincts; one that reminds us of the obligations we have to ourselves and one another."

Pride is optimistic about Obama's chances: "Once he has a sense of what is within reach — which priorities to pursue first — he will be good at laying out the themes that serve them. And because he listens to a broad range of advisers, some of whom cut against his instincts, he should be deft at compromising even with a Congress dominated by his own party to get things through."

Comparing the philosophical and the political Obamas and noting his stirring words, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote: "I know how he wants to govern. I'm not convinced he can pull it off."

Political commentator E.J. Dionne Jr. sees a more positive turn, writing that "there seems to be an inexorable quality to Obama's rise this year because he is the first truly 21st-century figure in American politics. He is the innovator who has set the standard for the next political era."

Obama, on his last day on the campaign trail, reminded 90,000 citizens at a rally of the hopes of Edith Childs, a City Council member from Greenwood, S.C., who had lifted him up early in his campaign when crowds were small. She inspired him with her chant of "Fired up and ready to go."

Obama said: "That's how this thing started. It shows you what one voice can do. One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state then it can change a nation and if it can change a nation it can change a world."

In the next few days, we'll begin to see.

Jim Verhulst can be reached at

the transformer? 11/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 12:40pm]
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