Mr. President, 'Change' Is Your 'New Frontier'

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's this intriguing observation that newspaperman William V. Shannon once made. He wrote that after the 1960 election, President John F. Kennedy stopped using the phrase 'The New Frontier.'

On the face of it, Shannon was wrong. Kennedy used the words in his public utterances several times as president, including the 1962 State of the Union address.

And yet, in a way, Shannon was right. President Kennedy never used the expression as a dominant theme like he did during the campaign. And it's quite understandable why he didn't. He was young (the first president born in the 20th century). He had a newborn baby. People saw him playing touch football on the lawn instead of with Eisenhower on some sedate putting green. The public got the message every time they looked at their television sets: here was something new.

For similar reasons, it's been said that Barack Obama has to remain wary of offering the country "too much change." Nonsense.

Now, forget about how many times the president has said the word 'change.' He's said it... a lot.... But as President of the United States, 'change' has taken on a new meaning, much in the way Kennedy's New Frontier had. Which is why it is important to remember: just because you're in power doesn't mean you can't campaign as an agent of change. That's what today's two-party politics comes down to: change versus a restoration.

President Obama and Democrats in Congress need the economy to turn around, and they need to keep piling up significant achievements. That will sway some voters. But most of all, they cannot back away from the mantra of change, or they risk losing it.

True, Republicans are more unpopular than Democrats are right now, but as pollster Tom Jensen points out, "there's a pretty significant group of the electorate that dislikes both parties and they're overwhelmingly planning to vote Republican next year because they think it at least provides an opportunity for change." The New York Times' Charles Blow went as far as using the 'R'-word -- realignment -- in discussing the country's growing thirst for change.

Of course, it was a Republican-controlled White House and Congress that "got us into this mess," as the president likes to say. He chides them for criticizing his efforts. "Grab a mop!" he cries.

Is that the best he can do? Because saying "Change is hard" is not good enough. It sounds like you're making excuses for why your change isn't working. "Keep It Going," another platitude the president has offered and a Democratic rallying cry in New Jersey's governor's race, doesn't work so well either. Sure, the unemployment rate could be worse, but is this really your idea of where "It" is "Going?"

Rather, people ought to know two things about Democrats: 1) they're still the party of change, and 2) what the Republicans stand for isn't change; it's a restoration.

Change needs to be the overarching theme of their efforts. It's the bull in the china shop of a stable political majority, and you're either going to ride that sucker or get gored by him.

The Republicans' strategy of slowing down change couldn't be more evident than in the perpetually extending health care debate in Congress. But they have been successful at promulgating the idea that they, too, are touting change -- change from Obama.

It's a mistake for President Obama to think he can campaign on a mixture of change and blame. It's asking an unforgiving electorate for the benefit of the doubt between two parties extolling change -- an 'in' party and an 'out' party. As Tom Jensen said, Democrats lose that toss-up. And furthermore, it's looking backward when Obama needs to be talking about what the Republicans will do. And that's instituting a restoration.

Republicans insist that they've learned their lesson, that they've moved away from George W. Bush and back to conservative principles. Hogwash. They haven't moved an inch. And voters should be reminded of what Sam Tanenhaus recently wrote:

Bush, so often labeled a traitor to movement principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors -- including Reagan. Few on the right acknowledge this today, for obvious reasons. But not so long ago many did. At his peak, following September 11, Bush commanded the loyalties of every major faction of the Republican Party. The central domestic proposal of his first term, the $1.3 trillion tax cut, extended Reagan's massive "tax reform" from the 1980s. His massive Medicare prescription drug bill was in line with Reagan's continuation of Social Security and Medicare. And the huge deficits Bush amassed, though they angered small-government conservatives, had a precedent, too.

Top it off with the Bush Doctrine that employed the old 'rollback' foreign policy mindset, and there you have the core of reasons why a Republican resurgence would be a full-blown restoration of the Bush era.

Of course, no one political party or ideology can own 'change' forever. They shouldn't and won't. But it'd also be wrong for change to change hands so quickly -- at least, not until the GOP comes up with some real ideas and Obama has established a record of clearly defined changes for them to run against.

To bring this back to John Kennedy, the idea of 'change' in politics is similar to how in early 1961, the president-elect faced "the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier," and quoted from John Winthrop's 1630 lay sermon about "a city set upon a hill."

As Ted Widmer brilliantly tells it in his book, Ark of the Liberties, Winthrop had taken these words from the Gospel of Matthew to define his vision for Boston as the successor to other sacred cities on a hill -- presumably Constantinople, Rome and Jerusalem. Kennedy was not the first in our nation's history to borrow this "ancient language woven into the American DNA," yet for a short time, it was most closely associated with the liberal 35th president.

Then Ronald Reagan employed similar imagery in his 1984 campaign, and a liberal in the Kennedy mold, Mario Cuomo, assailed him for "the faces that you don't see... the places that you don't visit in your shining city."

What a contrast. Kennedy and his ideology saw Winthrop's city as something to strive toward, something to be attained; Reagan and his ideology saw Winthrop's city as something we've already attained, and ought to preserve. Kennedy invoked Winthrop at the beginning of his presidential journey; Reagan, at the end.

Which just goes to show how things change in politics, and how ideas are re-appropriated over time. It is inevitable that the call for change will one day belong to the Republican Party.

But not yet. Not yet.