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

Obama! By The Content of His Character

When I was a child my mother and I travelled by bus to our nation's capitol where I joined 250,000 other Americans of all races and backgrounds spread along the great mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and heard Martin Luther King deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. I have probably heard excerpts from Dr. King's speech a hundred times since and yet, when I hear his words repeated, they still bring tears to my eyes.

Today, my eyes tear up again as I realize that a part of Dr. King's dream has become a reality. A majority of American voters have chosen their next President--the son of a dark-skinned African and a white-skinned American--based, as Dr. King proclaimed, not on the color of his skin but on the content of his character.

And during the 22 long months of this campaign, Barack Obama has demonstrated extraordinary character. He has shown that he has both a first class intellect and a first class temperament. He has used the skills honed as a community organizer to build not just a political campaign but a mass movement that has defeated both the Clinton machine and the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove Republican machine which had dominated American politics for the past 28 years. He has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to take everything that has been thrown at him, to weather all the ups and downs of a long campaign, without allowing himself or his campaign to become either overly dejected or overly excited. He has shown an intellectual ability to listen to many points of view and then distill them into decisive policy and political positions. These are the qualities of character, intellect and temperament that potentially could make for a great President.

Will Obama actually become a great President, even a transformational President? It is, of course, far too soon to know. Even before he takes office, George Bush will have dumped in Obama's lap a nation facing the most serious problems since the 1930's--A financial system facing collapse, a recession teetering on the bring of depression, two chaotic and difficult wars, and huge budget deficits that will limit the resources available for a new President to solve these problems.

Before the campaign even ended, the forces of Wall Street finance, mainstream media, and Washington consensus have been begun pressuring Obama to be cautious and moderate, to take small steps instead of reaching for large-scale transformation, to avoid taking on the powerful forces that block progressive change. They tell us that this is a center-right nation and that Obama must govern from the center-right, as though the failure of the Bush administration and the success of Obama's campaign itself have not moved the center in a more progressive direction.

But, contrary to this advice, Obama has the potential to be a progressive Ronald Reagan--to take advantage of the historical moment and his extraordinary communications skills to bring about a new era of progressive political and social change. Among the changes he can start to bring about right away are a major FDR-style stimulus package including direct jobs-creating public works and green projects, an end to Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, a significant move towards universal health care, an end to America's $10 billion a month combat role in Iraq, a serious diplomatic offensive to bring Iran into the community of civilized nations in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, and a major initiative to lead the world in reducing greenhouse gases. Is this really some kind of left-wing agenda or is it the new center?

And we must understand one more thing. How successful President Obama will be in transforming America in a progressive direction will depend on us, as well as on him. Great social change takes place through the confluence of mass popular movements and responsive political leadership.

The March on Washington taught me a lesson I will never forget--that ordinary people, when working together, can truly bring about major social and political change. The March, along with the other mass demonstrations, sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives, made it possible to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended legal segregation in America. Of course they didn't put an end to all racial prejudice. And even Obama's election will not by itself put an end to the poverty of the inner city or the tragedy of more African American men with prison records than college degrees. But both the Civil Rights Acts of the '60s and the elevation of Barack Obama to become the 44th President of these United States of America are extraordinary steps along the path to building a more perfect union. I only wish Barack's grandmother had lived a few more days to see this come to pass with her own eyes.

I have written before about FDR's Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins (the only woman in his cabinet) who, soon after his election, went to FDR and asked him to do more for America's workers. FDR's response was "go out and make me". Among other things, Perkins organized a conference of labor leaders in the Secretary's suite, which developed a ten-point program to present to FDR, including abolition of child labor, higher wages for all workers, government recognition of the right to organize, and social security. Much of this program was eventually enacted as part of the New Deal. But it wouldn't have happened without millions of workers organizing, unionizing and demonstrating, any more than Lyndon Johnson and Congress would have passed the Civil Rights Act without African Americans and their white allies sitting in, marching, registering voters, and even dying.

So let 's celebrate Barack Obama's election to the Presidency of the United States of America, based, in part, on the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream of people being judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And then let's get to work to organize the necessary popular pressure to make Barack Obama's Presidency fulfill its potential to be a great, progressive and transformative one.

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