12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Generation

When, on the night of his election victory, Barack Obama addressed the nation from Grant Park in Chicago and declared, "This is our moment. This is our time," he was doing what the two twentieth-century presidents whom he most resembles -- Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy -- also did. He was laying claim to being an agent of generational change while reaching out to the young as no presidential candidate as done in the last 30 years. His administration, Obama was making clear, would reach out to an America that his predecessor had neither understood nor appreciated.

"To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny," Franklin Roosevelt declared at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Roosevelt made no bones about the inequities faced in the Great Depression by the average man, whom he saw as a victim of the "royalists of the economic order." Nor did FDR conceal the steps that he intended to take to make things right. "In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity," he observed at Philadelphia in language that was as religious as it was political.

Three decades later John Kennedy was equally adamant about defining the kind of generational change he had in mind. "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed," he declared his Inaugural Address of 1961. Like Roosevelt, Kennedy made no secret of his political goals and the egalitarianism on which his administration would be based. "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich," he insisted, before moving on to the climactic line of his speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

For Obama, the generation of Americans that he addressed in his Grant Park speech was also a generation in trouble. He made no effort to conceal "the enormity of the task" that lies ahead. "We know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, and the worst financial crisis in a century," he announced before he was halfway done. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep," he promised.

What was crucial for Obama, as for Roosevelt and Kennedy, was to begin the process of change as quickly as possible. Nothing was more fundamental to Obama's Grant Park speech than his egalitarian belief, "We cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers -- in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people." But while Roosevelt and Kennedy saw remedying the difficulties that America faced in terms of political conflict, Obama took a different approach to achieving greater equality. It was his "determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress" that gave his speech its special stamp. The "spirit of patriotism" that Obama had in mind at Grant Park and throughout his campaign was one in a selflessness in which "each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."

Can such an approach work? When we think of the great social and political achievements that the Roosevelt years and the Kennedy- Johnson years produced, conflict was inseparable from success. Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Medicare, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act all came after bruising battles. Whether Obama can bring about national health insurance, financial reform, and greater energy independence without fighting a series of bruising battles is hard to imagine.

But there is no denying his determination to try do so, and there is no denying how much his belief in conciliation, rather than confrontation, won over voters fed up with the take-no-prisoners politics of the last eight years. For the college students I teach, who oppose the war in Iraq but support our troops, who volunteer on their vacations to build houses in New Orleans but who feel uneasy fighting the Louisiana political establishment, Obama's politics are particularly appealing, as is his style.

My students may not think of themselves as "Generation O" -- that label is too much of a media invention -- but what they see in Obama is someone whose informality, belief in personal disclosure, and fondness for teamwork parallels theirs. He may be twenty-five years older than most of them, but as the notes they post on Obama's Facebook page show, they and their generation see him as their candidate, just as in 1960 baby boomers believed John Kennedy represented them despite his being born in 1917.

As he moves forward, Obama can count on the YouTube crowd, but his visceral appeal doesn't stop with them. In his remarkable run to the presidency, Obama also captured blue-collar voters in Levittown, Hillary Clinton Democrats, and thousands of suburban Republicans who crossed traditional party lines when they went to the polls.

Like Roosevelt and Kennedy, Obama may finally have to play hard ball and make deals to get the results he wants. But if he does change course, there is still every reason to believe that he will carry the country with him as he bows to necessity. The great dividend that comes from being a president who speaks for a generation and embodies its values is long-term loyalty.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower. 212-663-4283.

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