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Don't Turn Obama Into Blair

When I decided to fulfill an overdue business trip to the States in the week of the elections, I had one thought in mind: I want to be there when history is made. I swear that on arriving back in London at the end of the week, that I was neurologically altered. I felt lighter, more energetic, more optimistic about the most trivial and the most portentous issues. Yes We Can was no longer a catchy song, it was a national anthem envied by the world.

But it was difficult to share the unproblematic optimism back home. Too many people in the UK remember the hope and subsequent betrayal of New Labour's victory in 1997 when Tony Blair metamorphosed from Bambi to Terminator in his first term.

Although there is much to compare in Obama's victory speech with Tony Blair's early speeches there are also important differences. New Labour itself was an ideological triumph - as much over "Old" Labour as over their rivals, the Conservatives. And when the New succeeded where the Old had failed so many times before, the seeds of internal resentment within the Labour party were sewn.

Both Obama and the early Blair had unprecedented media appeal: but while Obama was a spectacular underdog, tip-toeing between the mine fields of prejudice, always hoping to transcend polarity and include critics, Blair was always simply the privileged kid who was surprisingly likeable.

Most notably - in stark contrast to Obama - Blair's emphasis in his first speech as Prime Minister was almost entirely on his own personal duty to effect change:

"As I stand here before 10 Downing Street I know all too well the huge responsibility that is upon me and the great trust that the British people have placed in me."

The British voters were invited to stand and admire his shiny new team - containing powerful figures like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, with their huge emphasis on media management and 'rapid rebuttal' - all later to be dismissed by the public as control freaks. Although Blair retains his popularity in the US, his increasingly isolated behaviour - 'ignoring' the popular resistance to the war in Iraq, falling out with his European partners, losing several of his original cabinet to high profile scandals - led to repeated charges of hubris in the British press.

As recent studies by both academics and politicians - suggests, one of the big contributors to the leader's retreat into a bubble is a media culture which focuses unremittingly on his or her power and responsibility. In other words, we think it is up to the leader, at all times, to put things right. And eventually, the leader agrees.

But Obama's victory was historic not simply because of his own uniqueness, but for the unprecedented way his campaign involved the public and made it their campaign. From the methods of donation to the delegation of responsibility for getting the vote out. Remember this quote:

"You proved that change can happen. You built an unprecedented grassroots organization in all 50 states that brought a record number of people into the political process -- many for the first time, many for the first time in a long time"

How is this campaign culture of properly engaging the grass roots going to change the way that Obama behaves as a President in the future? Where is the 'change' in the way the public can experience these early days of Obama's era that might draw on the networked, collectivised nature of the victory? Of course it is natural that most of the media focus is on Obama's activities - his new teams and his broad intentions for office. But is it entirely natural, that before Obama even takes the oath, there are innumerable articles on the disappointment with his choices and his lack of radical policy announcements. He's not even in government yet!

What effect does that insistent scepticism have on public confidence and morale - crucial factors in turning the economy around in the year ahead? From my perch in London I can feel it: I'm having to work just a bit harder at maintaining that American optimism.

Wouldn't it be better to go widescreen and look for stories of continuing change away from Washington? Arianna's report of how Change.org was calling to extend the campaign activism into civic life is a great example of this. But where are those stories now of people taking action in their local communities, people perceiving new attitudes, people taking on new projects? Or has Yes We Can already shrunk into Yes He Can?

If we are going to avoid a similar fate for President Obama that befell PM Blair, then I propose we broaden the focus in our search for optimism about the future.

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