I've been thinking a lot recently about an article I read some years ago. The author had asked about 50 people how they would define the word "power". There were the usual responses one might expect, such as "rich and famous", "strength" or "being able to have anything you want". But one particular definition jumped out at me -- and has stuck with me ever since: "power is the ability to get things done".
How would each of the major political parties today define the term "power"? And how does that perspective shape each of their agendas and approaches to governing? When asked in a 2004 Time Magazine interview what he thought the major differences were between the Republicans and the Democrats, President Bill Clinton said:
I think the Republicans are better at understanding how to get and keep power. They've shown that since 1968. The Democrats tend to be more responsible in the exercise of power but sometimes don't understand how to get it or keep it.
At the risk of distressing some superstitious Democrats with just two days left before the election I've been wondering: what would happen if Obama were given an ACTUAL mandate this Tuesday? What if he were to win decisively (including in traditionally Republican states) and also gain a filibuster-proof Senate? How would he and the Democrats use their power to lead the nation?
Consider that following President Bush's narrow victory in the 2004 election with 51% of the popular vote and 34 more Electoral College votes, he claimed:
I earned capital in this campaign, political capital and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. When you win, there is...a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view.
Most telling, he pledged that he would "work in a bipartisan manner with everyone who shares our goals".
So what did "The Great Divider" proceed to do fours years after a bitterly contested 2000 election where the Democratic candidate actually won the popular vote, deeply dividing the nation? He used the pretense of an artificial mandate to continue dictating and imposing a completely partisan agenda, further deepening the divide.
In contrast, a clear mandate would give President Obama and the Democrats a refreshing opportunity to demonstrate to the American people (and the world) that such power can be transformative and healing, rather than divisive. That it can be used to bring about real change with an agenda that truly tries to address the needs of all the people, not just some. That power can be used to actually get things done rather than using it solely to maintain it. That promises made by a presidential candidate in a campaign might not be empty but actually delivered upon. President Obama and the Democrats might even redefine what it means to be "patriotic" with "American values" in the 21st century, something which has been distorted by the Republicans during the last eight years as part of their "divide and conquer" strategy.
There will undoubtedly be a reflexive tendency for many long-serving Democrats to use their newfound power to aggrieve what they perceive as previous abuses by the other party. This will be particularly true after increasingly negative attacks by the Republicans in the last throes of the election. Such a Democratic reaction would be a huge mistake and merely continue the cycle of gridlock which has plagued the nation for far too long.
President-elect Obama must lead his party by example in the same manner he has acquitted himself so well in the campaign. He needs to remember that it was his simple yet eloquent statement that "we are not red states and blue states, we are the United States of America" that thrust him on to the national scene four years ago and inspired the hope for change that so many now embrace.
As Uncle Ben so poignantly reminded Peter Parker/Spiderman: "with great power comes great responsibility." Starting January 20th, President Obama will hopefully have the chance to show all Americans, particularly those that doubted him and did not support or vote for him, that is a concept he truly understands.