WASHINGTON — If you want to recall a moment that captured Barack Obama's special opportunity to pull the country together, rewind the tape to July 21, 2009. That was the night the president hosted Brad Paisley at the White House for a celebration of country music.
It was good music and good politics. Many of Paisley's fans probably hadn't voted for Obama; symbolically, country is red-state music and, in the popular mythology, at least, white people's music. It was a little like Nelson Mandela embracing the sport of rugby, beloved by white South Africans, as a way to unite a divided nation, as recounted in the movie Invictus.
Paisley was the perfect connection. He's a country superstar, born in West Virginia and living in Tennessee. His string of hits includes such politically incorrect anthems as I'm Still a Guy. ("Oh my eyebrows ain't plucked, there's a gun in my truck. Oh thank God, I'm still a guy.") But Paisley is also something of a closet progressive, as the July event showed.
The emotional highlight came when Paisley performed a new release called Welcome to the Future. It's a foot-tapping song about the classic country themes of dislocation and change, but it's really about the election of Barack Obama and what it meant for the country.
Paisley told the president that he began writing the song Election Night 2008, when he "watched the world turn on a dime." He turned to Michelle Obama and said he had been thinking recently about how the first lady's great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, had been a slave in South Carolina.
Then Paisley let it rip: He had to close his eyes to keep from choking up as he sang these words:
I had a friend in school,
Running back on a football team.
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the homecoming queen.
I thought about him today,
And everybody who'd seen what he's seen.
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream.
Hey, wake up Martin Luther.
Welcome to the future.
Take a look at the You Tube clip. Unless you have a heart of stone, you'll get a lump in your throat.
Paisley explained what the evening meant to him in a posting on CNN.com: "On November 4th, I felt an emotion like I haven't felt in my entire life. I think whoever you voted for, you had to be moved." When he left the stage at the White House, he said, "I came off and just started bawling, because it was so emotional for me to sing those words."
That's the door that Obama's presidency opened for the country. The question is: What happened to that gut-moving sense of change, and how can Obama bring it back?
The commentary pages have been thick with discussions of how Obama lost his mojo. Most of them reflect the writer's political stance: Conservatives think Obama has been too liberal, and liberals argue that he hasn't been liberal enough. What these polemics overlook is that Obama pledged to transcend these labels. That's why he was elected — to be an agent of change for a partisan Washington system that had become dysfunctional.
One of the most provocative Obama critiques I've read is an essay in the Nation by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School. He argued that to regain his status as a change agent, Obama must challenge the central node of our political sickness, which is Congress. It has been so enfeebled by political money and partisan feuds that it is, says Lessig, "a bankrupt institution."
Obama campaigned against this broken system, but in office he has relied on politicians for his top advisers. Of his 15 Cabinet appointments, eight are former members of Congress or governors. It's an administration that looks like the status quo, rather than change.
A strategy that challenges Washington's immobilism has a chance of passing the Brad Paisley test. For what unites liberals and conservatives, rockers and country crooners, is that they agree Washington is an abomination. This is still Obama's best card.
Paisley has another song I like, called American Saturday Night, about the wild cultural diversity of this country and how it all fits together: "It's like we're all livin' in a big ol' cup, just fire up the blender, mix it all up." That's the country that elected Barack Obama, and it still wants a strong leader who can fix the mess.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group