12/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Man Who Changed the World?

Wanting to change the world is different from having to. The latter is what's expected of Barack Obama if he's elected. The huge crowds he keeps attracting aren't looking simply for a new leader, or even a reformer to undo the bad things wrought by the Republicans. They are looking for transformation. This isn't pure fantasy. Sometimes history forces change right before your eyes, and when that happens the road forks. You can tinker with the world as it is or you can remake the world as it should be.

Obama hasn't given clear signals yet about which road he might take, because the ritual and theater of election campaigns force a candidate to spend a lot of time telling people what they want to hear. The last president who drastically remade the country was FDR, and yet nothing of the sort was expected when he ran in 1932. Roosevelt could have turned into a better Herbert Hoover, rescuing failed banks, restoring trust in government, bringing people back to a sense of hope and safety. Those are all good things, and Obama is poised to repeat them seventy years later. But if he does nothing more, the world won't change. While he attacked the basic problem of the Great Depression, FDR laid down the template of the modern social welfare state. His actions didn't immediately create prosperity -- far from it -- but they expanded opportunities for millions of people, stripped the old elites of their absolute power, and gave Americans their first economic safety net in Social Security.

I would hate to see Obama turn into a better Herbert Hoover. He could, and should, lay down a template for the next fifty years. It's no secret that we need to repair our image abroad, deal with Islamic extremism in a better way, open up global markets, repair our infrastructure, shift away from fossil fuels, and attack global warming with clear, vigorous policies. For many people, accomplishing those things would be a page-tuner after eight years of reactionary neoconservatism. But they wouldn't change the world.

What would is the following:
-- Get America off a war footing. We've been armed for imminent war since 1945.
-- Develop an economy that makes a profit on peace. At present, we are dependent on arms and arms dealing.
-- Get the rest of the world not to fear us.
-- Take the side of the world's dispossessed people, who only now are seeing the possibility of a decent life in India, China, southeast Asia, and much of Russia.
-- Bring humanity and humane conditions to all of Africa.
-- Stop dividing the world along ideological lines and religious factions. We need to be a secular leader friendly to all sides.
-- Speed up nuclear disarmament until all weapons stockpiles are gone in this generation.

I hope Obama is thinking along these lines, because if he isn't, the best he can hope for is a prosperous interval, like the Clinton years, while the underlying militarism and religious fractures fester. Two presidents -- Lincoln and FDR -- heeded history's call with the utmost foresight, never compromising their vision. The difference here is that we aren't facing civil war or economic ruin. America has an opportunity to change the world through free choice, by looking at what would be best rather than what has always worked.

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