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Scott Warren Headshot

Can Obama Save Politics?

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President Obama's State of the Union was aggressive and meaty. From immigration reform to gun control, to raising the minimum wage and universal pre-school education, Obama clearly wants to make a mark in his second term. But regardless of the policy ambitions, Obama raised another theme that should, but has not yet, received bi-partisan support: reigniting citizen involvement in our political process.

One of the only subjects that Democrats and Republicans agree on right now is that our political process is broken. After the debacle of the fiscal cliff crisis, Public Policy Polling found that Americans hold Congress in less regard than everything from cockroaches to the NFL replacement referees. Only 9 percent of Americans approve of the job of our Congress. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government in Washington to do what is right. The result, understandably, has been the American public largely divorcing itself from the process. More than 40 percent of the electorate, or more than 80 million eligible voters, stayed home on Election Day, meaning that more people did not vote than voted for Barack Obama.

Obama seems to get this. He knows that the electorate is disenchanted, and has continuously stated that we deserve better. And in the State of the Union, he hinted at his solution to our broken political system -- and it's not just our elected leaders acting like adults. He postulated that the solution to our political problems lies with the American citizenry, stating that, "We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens... (and) it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."

In other words, in order to save politics, we have the obligation to get more political. We can't just blame our politicians.

Given the president's history, this emphasis makes sense. He started his career as a community organizer in Chicago, attempting to empower low-income housing compounds in the Rosewood area with political rights to advance their own material lot. His first presidential campaign was decidedly grassroots focused, as everyday citizens carried him to power over the establishment backed Hillary Clinton. He gets that citizen involvement is necessary for a healthy democracy. But despite this reality, after Obama took office, he did relatively little to encourage citizen involvement in his first term. Instead his approach was to wheel and deal in the halls of Washington, working in the halls of Congress, both compromising and strong-arming, to pass legislation like the stimulus package and health care reform. Political change has not included citizen action.

It is clear that Obama wants to be a transformational leader. In a 2008 interview before the Nevada caucuses, he noted that, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not." Many have asserted that the first month of Obama's second term, from his inaugural to this State of the Union, has been his attempt to become the left's answer to Reagan. But if Obama really wants to transform our political process, legislation is not enough. He should spend the next four years lending credence to words he gave in his second inaugural, that "Citizens have the power to set this country's course." Transformative leadership involves restoring America's faith in our government.

Obama can take numerous steps to revitalize citizen involvement. First, he needs to emphasize the oft-repeated but rarely followed refrain that all change is local. We have a bias in this country to focus on national politics, but it is state legislators and city council members that have the ability to impact everyday lives. In the wake of the election, Obama campaigners have morphed his campaign into a new entity, Organizing for Action. But solely encouraging citizens to organize for Obama-supported initiatives will do little to catalyze overall citizen engagement. Encouraging citizens to engage in their communities is a necessity, regardless of political affiliation.

He can also use his bully pulpit to encourage "democracy-building" initiatives like an emphasis on civic education and a more balanced media. Finally, he can make good on promises to reform our actual election system, getting rid of the long lines that supposedly reduced voting rates in states like Florida by almost 200,000 people. We need to make it easier for people to actually participate.

None of this is particularly sexy. For his own legacy, it might be preferable to pass landmark gun control legislation, take on climate change and reform the tax code. This is all necessary. But for the long-term health of our country's political system, nothing would be more transformative, and more challenging, than revitalizing our democracy.