THE BLOG
02/19/2008 11:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Vilify Obama for his Ability to Inspire is to Ignore the Principal Lesson of the Last Three Decades of American Politics

It's one thing for supporters of Hillary Clinton to make the case that her experience in Washington politics would make her a better president than Barack Obama. But it's quite another to actually vilify Obama's ability to inspire as a "cult of the personality" or "nothing but words."

It is particularly disturbing when serious progressive writers who should know better repeat this attack on Obama's inspirational abilities. It demonstrates a failure to grasp the principal lesson of the last thirty years of American politics.

In fact, it is precisely the absence of inspiration in progressive politics that has kept Progressives on the political defensive for decades.

That's because to inspire people, Progressives have to appeal to something much more important than endless lists of policies and programs. To inspire people, Progressives have to appeal to our values and to our vision for the future.

John Kerry did not lose the presidency because he lacked solid, progressive policies and programs. His campaign rolled out new ten point programs practically every other day. He lost because the Republicans erroneously convinced a significant number of persuadable voters that John Kerry lacked core values -- that he was a flip-flopper.

Right after the last election I struck up a conversation with a New Jersey cab driver. I asked him, "What do you think of Jon Corzine?" "Good guy, tough guy, stands up for what he believes," came the reply. "What do you think of George Bush?" "Good guy, stands up for what he believes," he said. "What do you think of John Kerry?" I asked. "Phoney... a flip-flopper," he responded.

His evaluation of these political leaders had nothing to do with positions or policy papers. The Republicans had convinced him that Kerry didn't have core values.

From 1932 until the mid 1970s -- at least in our domestic politics -- progressive values provided the dominant frame for mainstream political debate. They defined political "common sense." By 1980, the Reagan revolution had changed that -- and rightwing values have framed the American political debate for the thirty years since.

That's largely because Progressives went into a "defensive crouch." Our candidates advocated "Republican-lite" positions. We refused to debate the fundamental differences between the progressive and radical conservative values. Chief among these differences is the central question of whether we're all in this together, or all in this alone.

Often our leaders retreated to the discussion of small, incremental policy initiatives that presumed the right wing's assumptions about the primacy of "private markets" over people, and the innate inferiority of democratically elected governmental institutions compared to corporations that are in fact unaccountable to the public interest.

Beginning in 2005, our successful defense of Social Security, the obvious failure of NeoCon foreign policy, and the spectacle of Katrina -- began to change that. Progressives began to emerge from their defensive crouch and stand up proudly for progressive values once again.

Then came Obama, with his ability to inspire Americans to devote themselves to our values in a way that resonates with average people. His self-confident appeal to hope and possibility -- his "yes we can" -- have captured the imagination of millions of Americans. His ability to inspire has allowed him to simultaneously engage swing "persuadable" voters and the millions of stay-at-home "mobilizable" voters who would support progressive candidates if they could just be motivated to vote.

People want to be inspired. Inspiration is about making people feel empowered to be more than they are. They want to be inspired because they desperately want meaning in their lives. They want to be part of something larger than themselves and they want to feel that they can play a significant part in that larger purpose.

Meaning comes from being devoted to something outside of yourself -- to a cause, to a person, to a religion, to your art.

That's why "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" is so resonant -- so inspirational.

The Right has understood this need for meaning--and has addressed it -- with calls for devotion to the "Conservative Movement," to fundamentalist religion, to xenophobic nationhood.

For three decades, Progressives have often tried to compete by offering the bloodless alternative of a "policy agenda" -- and many times a timid one at that.

For thirty seven years I have devoted much of my professional life to campaigns to implement progressive policy initiatives. So I certainly agree that we need sound, bold policies. Once in office, a new president must in fact deliver on real, concrete policy.

But to change policy in a fundamental way requires more than good programs. It requires a progressive realignment of the American political debate. It requires that we redefine the value frame for American politics. And that requires inspirational leadership that proudly affirms our values.

Just as important, it requires inspirational leadership that can mobilize millions of Americans to demand the enactment of a progressive program once a new president is in place. Frederick Douglass was right. "Power surrenders nothing without a struggle. It never has. It never will." Progressives won't win legislative battles with an insider game.

In 1993 we had a Democratic President and Democratic Congress, but we lost the battle for universal health care. What we needed then, and what we need now, is a massive national mobilization to pass universal health care, change our labor laws, enact campaign finance reform, provide universal access to higher education and preschool, end global warming and change our foreign policy.

Leadership, more than anything else, is about mobilizing people into action. People take action when they feel empowered -- when they are inspired. They will not take action simply because they are "convinced" we are right. They will take action when they are motivated by inspiration to be a part of an historic endeavor.

Inspiring leadership is not just "another quality" that would be "nice" to have in a president. And it is certainly not to be assailed as a "cult of the personality."

America needs inspiring leadership to re-establish the preeminence of progressive values; to define a progressive vision for its future; to mobilize Americans to enact a progressive agenda -- and most importantly -- to convert this historic opportunity into generational progressive political realignment.

No one knows for sure what either a Clinton or an Obama presidency would mean for America. But I believe that Barack Obama presents us with a candidacy more likely to provide the inspirational leadership that we need, than any politician since Robert Kennedy's quest for the White House ended that June night in 1968.