For a nation enmeshed in a generational and technological realignment, it's not shocking that doubts have begun to surface about the viability of our unprecedented president's vision for a new American era. As casual citizens and politicos terrified for years by threats of violence, economic collapse and moral certitude cling to the familiar mechanisms of the news cycle, partisan sparring and polling data, I'd argue that we're exactly on track to achieve the reform this country badly needs, despite all the hysterics surrounding health care. We need, specifically, to embrace online communications, welcome the Millennial generation to fruition, abandon the limitations of political party infrastructure, and reframe stagnant debates so that progress can take its course. Before any of that can happen, of course, we'll have to brace ourselves during the unraveling of institutions we've grown accustomed to, and a lot of people will probably freak out. (See: Lou Dobbs.)
Barack Obama introduced us to a new kind of politics, and veterans of the old guard aren't sure how to handle it while the emerging young leaders who built it haven't established enough clout to reinforce it. Meanwhile, legal-based technology constraints on the inside of the executive branch illustrate the efficiency of private industry, as Obama's reliable multi-media management tools and connection to the blogosphere can't be used to fuel his governing agenda the way it did during his campaign. This hands power back to the MSM, which is run by old people who want to tell the same old stories about politicians whose 25-year-old legislative aids probably have a better shot at rebuilding the GOP than they do. And suddenly it appears to be 1992, with pics of Bill Clinton and North Korean dictators headlining the evening news while Americans scratch their heads trying to understand "The Public Option."
Such is the nature of transition and "change." It comes with growing pains.
The new politics is: community organizing, vested interest from multiple and non-traditional political alliances, equality of opportunity, personal responsibility and efficient government. Notice the terms leave room for bipartisan interpretation and execution. This is the philosophy of the Millennial generation, and it will ultimately permeate political discourse as we assume more influential leadership roles. Under these auspices, liberals and conservatives will appropriately debate the limits of our Social Contract issue by issue, and health care is our first example. Not everyone will agree on it, but we'll tackle the next issue with zeal and the electoral process will error correct us along the way. For now, Obama is the first leader of this genre, and people of all ages, races, classes and ideologies will impose their perspectives onto him, as is easy to do given his multi-racial heritage and relative youth.
I read two pieces of commentary this week that perfectly encapsulated the dichotomy of the present moment. On the macro-level, Yale professor David Bromwich explores the challenges (or what some would characterize as flaws) in Obama's Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizing leadership philosophy. On the micro-level, former Hillary Clinton new media strategist Peter Dao breaks down how the summer's health care battle specifically illustrates community organizing's effectiveness gap between campaign and governance. Both men's posts have merit, and in terms of minutia they are correct in assessing some missteps and constraints preventing Obama from delivering on his promises. Yet.
Obama is a man at the epicenter of a convergence of external factors. Where we have little evidence to doubt is his ability to step into such a maelstrom and provide leadership. Yes, he could be short-sighted and push through health care reform by leaning on Democrats, but that would be counter-productive to the larger implications at stake. His greatest responsibility is to show us, no matter how vehemently we resist, how the new politics will be executed.
In recent weeks he has struggled, but the crescendo has come. He's engaged at the micro-level too much and will now return to the basics using his unique methods. He must provide a metrics for success (winning an election was obvious, legislation is not). He must use direct channels to the public and stop relying on press conferences where his message is misconstrued into side shows like the Beer Summit. And he must provide local, actionable options for supporters. Evidence that this is happening is already emerging, with the White House's creation of the health care smear fact page, and an email sent out to supporters this afternoon asking them to recommit to the grassroots activism they invested in last summer to pass health care legislation.
If Americans could remain poised, rely on facts, and be bold instead of submitting to fears about this confusing time, we might find ourselves face-to-face with the antidote to our long-held complaints about government. We'll be more collaborative, individually empowered, and capable of perfecting the American dream.