We don't know yet what the overarching theme of President Obama's reelection campaign will be, but the word "change" is likely to once again play at least a co-starring role.
And, of course, the concept of change is the thing that singularly defined Obama's candidacy last time around. So I have no doubt that as election season intensifies, we're going to hear a lot more from him about change.
But this time it's different. We've now seen the ways in which the president went about trying to effect that change over the last three years. So while his ideas about the changes the system needs in his second term are welcome and necessary, there is another kind of change he needs to talk about if the change he proposes is to be believed. He needs to make clear the changes he intends to make in himself, in the way he governs, and in the way he approaches the big, systemic changes he claims to want to see.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The First Circle: "If you wanted to put the world to rights, who should you begin with: yourself or others?" After what we've seen during Obama's first term, it seems safe to say that there's not going to be much change in the latter without a good deal of change in the former.
In The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe, one of the masterminds of Obama's 2008 campaign, wrote again and again about how central the idea of fundamental change was to the campaign.
"The country needed deep, fundamental change," he wrote. Change was the campaign's "North Star." Plouffe quotes David Axelrod saying that the race was about "change versus a broken status quo." And he describes the campaign as obsessed with not accepting the conventional wisdom of how campaigns are run, always asking "if we do this, how is that running a different kind of campaign?"
At a few points in the campaign when things were looking bad, they'd reconnect with this idea of change. "I want us to get our mojo back," Plouffe quotes Obama as saying. "We've got to remember who we are."
And in accepting his party's nomination, the new Democratic nominee stood at Denver's Invesco Field and proclaimed: "The greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result."
What a difference three years makes. While candidate Obama's goal of change was what the country needed and longed for, President Obama's method of effecting that change has failed. Though Plouffe writes that Obama had run "to challenge the bankrupt and conventional politics of Washington, not master it," in the end -- or at least three-fourths of the way through his first term -- he, in fact, has been mastered by it.
Instead of the "break-the-rules" strategy that Plouffe writes about, once in office a "follow-the-rules" strategy took hold. Instead of challenging the system, the president often legitimized it by accepting its limits and dutifully working within them. His administration was quickly stocked with all the usual "wise men." Not surprisingly, the same old players delivered the same old result. No wonder James Carville desperately wants them replaced.
In his book, Plouffe writes that the campaign "started with our supporters on the ground and they led us to victory." Obama, he wrote, "felt in his gut that if properly motivated, a committed grassroots army could be a powerful force." Yet, once Obama was in office that powerful force, eager to continue the campaign for change, went untapped. Obama has continued to make eloquent speeches about the need for change -- but it's the between-the-speeches-about-change part that needs some change of its own. Because, at this point, it's abundantly clear that the system isn't going to change unless Obama's method of bringing about change changes first.
It won't be easy. The closer we get to the 2012 election, the more voters tend to dismiss all rhetoric as mere electioneering. So given this rhetorical depreciation -- an election speech loses half its value the second you drive it off the lot -- this time it's going to take more than Obama trumpeting change as the goal. This time we need to hear more about exactly how he intends to change the ways he intends to bring about change. This requires acknowledging that change is not just needed in the country, but in himself.
And yes, I'm well aware of the structural impediments (aka the Republican Party) facing the president. But, given that they're not going anywhere, and show no signs of moderating their intransigence, it's even more important that we hear what changes he plans to make in his approach to governing.
His new jobs plan is a good case in point. Solid plan; great speech -- one he followed up by immediately taking his case to that "committed grassroots army." First, he went to Eric Cantor's district and proclaimed, "the time for action is now. The time to create jobs is now." Then he went to John Boehner's state and said, "my question to Congress is, what on earth are we waiting for?" This was followed by his call for a new minimum tax rate for millionaires.
It was an effective bit of political salesmanship -- and a refreshing shift in strategy. But the president's problem going forward is explaining the shift: If you've been taking one approach and then you abruptly change without acknowledging why, or even that you did, or what lessons were learned that caused you to make the change, it just doesn't ring true.
Of course, acknowledging mistakes and course-correcting are the hardest things for a leader to do. But in order for voters to believe that things will be different in the president's second term, there has to be some recognition of what didn't work in the first. Otherwise, any future talk of change will be like hearing a song without the music. And the more often words of change are used without real change happening, the more devalued they will become.
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