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Obama's Free Space Moment

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Next Wednesday marks the one year anniversary of Barack Obama's election. So much has happened in that year that it's easy to forget just how improbable the election victory was, just how world-shaking was the election of a young, charismatic, liberal black man to the presidency. It's easy to forget our collective emotional sigh of relief after the nadir of the Bush administration, our collective exhilaration - manifested by the spontaneous street parties that brought millions of Americans onto the streets to celebrate that evening as the results from around the country came in - at an outcome the polls had predicted but that, right up until the last minute, so many of us couldn't quite bring ourselves to believe was about to occur.

These days, we tend to take for granted the three words "President Barack Obama." We don't blink at the words "First Lady Michelle Obama." We might no longer even get excited at the fact that our president's speeches are often rhetorical treasures or that in most parts of the world our country's leadership is once more admired rather than reviled. Overall, as a society, we have come to accept as normal this truly remarkable political transformation.

As I argued in an earlier piece for the Huffington Post, the very fact that so many people - from both the left and right of the political spectrum - are protesting specific Obama policies is a sign of this normalization. After all, administrations and leaders seen as being above reproach, as being "saviors" or incarnations of a revolutionary impulse, rarely perform up to expectations. Absent a culture of criticism, they tend to degenerate into cronyism and corruption. Far better to keep a good administration on its toes through dissent and protest.

Yes, Obama's popularity ratings have fallen, and some have taken that as a sign of the administration's failure. But what is the point of governing solely to remain popular? Far better to use some of that political capital to actually push for specific policy shifts. Roosevelt did so in the 1930s and today we remember not monthly dips in his approval ratings but rather his institutional legacy: social security, unemployment insurance and so on.

That said, despite the current fractious political scene, despite the fact that Obama frequently, these days, draws the ire of editorial writers at the New York Times or bloggers for this and other liberal outlets - not to mention the loathing of large sections of the country's conservative flank -- it's worth taking a step back down memory lane to remember just how cathartic November 4th, 2008 was.

Toward the end of my new book, a profile of the president titled Inside Obama's Brain, I note that Obama's success relied not simply on his charisma but on the willingness of significant sections of the American (and global) populace to be seduced. For no matter how charismatic a leader is, at the end of the day he is only as successful as his audience will permit him to be. Obama's significance as a leader in those strange, heady days of 2008 was due partly to his own innate qualities; but, as important in many ways, it came from a country's desire to move beyond the previously dominant model and methods of politics, from its longing to be seduced. Great dancers need great partners. If Obama was Fred Astaire, nimble, elegant, suave, sophisticated, he still needed Ginger to truly shine. And, in 2008, Ginger turned out to be the American voting public.

Obama represented something new. A clean break. A fresh start. His story - which, he constantly reminded audiences, was itself improbable, almost mythical - seemed to offer a one-man reinvention, or at the very least a reinvigoration, of a frayed American Dream. His smile was breathtaking. His self-confidence was infectious. And he listened. Boy could Obama listen. Lend him your words, your story, and he'd lend back those big ears; and you'd think there was no-one else alive on earth with a story more important to be heard than yours. You aren't a nobody, those ears implied. You're somebody. You have experiences that must be heard. It was a line from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman writ large: Attention must be paid. Grievances were going to be aired. Heartache, social compacts broken, economic hopes laid to waste as the economy entered a freefall, were going to be discussed.

In Nixonland, the historian Rick Perlstein vividly described a world of politics, anxieties, and methods defined by the person and philosophy of Richard Nixon. Love him or loathe him, for tens of millions of Americans over a near-half century period, Nixon, in all his full Machiavellian finery, represented what U.S. politics was, where the culture was at. Nixonland was a state of mind as much as it was a geographical entity.

In Inside Obama's Brain I posit that Obama's election ended that moment; that, whether he ultimately thrives as a president or not, the fact that so many people had been energized by a message and political technique so diametrically opposed to those spawned by Nixonian politics in a sense repaired a political fabric shredded by Tricky Dick and his heirs (of both political parties). Obama's community activist mentors write and talk of creating "free spaces," places of creative political discussion and engaged, empowered, residents in which to implement their visions. Obama's challenge was to enlarge the notion of a free space to encompass the country as a whole; it was to open up possibilities for reimagining and reinventing America that had been left to gather dust for decades. Obama couldn't fully operate in the country and on the political playing field that he found when he first ran for office; he had to create something new. He had to detail the contours of a new, more inclusive, polity.

Over the past year, it has been the creation of this new political language, of this new set of expectations - for competency and openness in governance, for a political leadership that works to create new social safety net protections, for an administration that listens (to both domestic and international audiences) rather than simply bullies, for occupants of the White House who admit they aren't infallible - that, to my mind, has been most impressive. If this project succeeds, the children of the Obama years might one day end up having as high expectations of their elected leaders as did the children of the New Deal era.

The specific policy reforms - new regulatory agencies, new mechanisms for providing healthcare coverage, new environmental priorities - are, clearly, still works in progress. A year's a long time in politics, yet, in some ways, it's also an extremely short time. Despite the impatience of reformers, it seems probable to me that in the years ahead, those reforms will come - after all, most of the durable institutional reforms from the New Deal era were shaped in the last part of Roosevelt's first term and throughout his second, rather that in the more famous, heady, first one hundred days of the new administration.