08/02/2010 05:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whatever Happened to "We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For"?

Anyone else remember "We Are the People We Have Been Waiting For," the signature line of Obama's presidential campaign? People as diverse as Alice Walker and Andrew Sullivan cited it in their endorsements of upstart candidate. What gave it zing was the fact that his campaign had both the political skills and organizational apparatus to actually mobilize people on a massive scale.

Then there was Obama's climate change position paper, which called for "a grassroots effort to make America greener and end the tyranny of oil" and a "a nationwide effort to harness our technology, our ingenuity and our will to achieve energy independence in our time."

It was this combination of his "we are the ones we have been waiting for" rhetoric, his call for a civic campaign to reduce carbon emissions, and his campaign's success at grassroots mobilization that really got my attention. Global warming is the biggest challenge humans have ever faced, so big it cannot be meaningfully addressed within the confines of electoral politics. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that would matter will require a creative--and exceedingly unlikely--synthesis of public policy and civic mobilization. It is this sort of huge gap between what is necessary and what is likely that breeds cynicism, and this in turn was why the Obama campaign was seen as a cynicism antidote.

Last week, the policy part of the assault on global warming died an ignoble death in the Senate in the face of a threatened Republican filibuster. One cannot blame Obama for the behavior of Senate Republicans. They have the votes to kill the legislation. That is the basic electoral arithmetic. But what about the national civic campaign against global warming? Forty Republican senators did not kill that, because there was nothing to kill. All that stuff about grassroots action, civic mobilization, and we being the ones we are waiting for - what became of all of that? Absolutely nothing. Zip, zilch, zero. Nada. All that "we are the ones we have been waiting for" talk was just more greenhouse gas.

There is so much that could be done. Remember conservation? The stunningly simple idea of doing more with less? All serious analyses of greenhouse gas emissions begin with the obvious fact that huge reductions can be made be by altering certain consumption habits. Just the sort of thing national civic action campaigns can address, and that Republican Senators can't filibuster. So many millions of Americans are just waiting for some sort of leadership to get the ball rolling. And now we have two oil spills that have focused the nation's attention on the calamity of fossil fuel.

Since taking office, President Obama has tried to mobilize me to do two things. The first is to send him money, which he asks me to do via email on a mind-numbingly regular basis. The second is to pray, which he asked me to do in response to the first oil spill. Bush also asked me to pray in response to national calamity. But Bush also asked me to shop. I guess in that sense Obama is more efficient, asking me to just send my money directly to him instead of spending it at the mall.

In the meantime, we have just finished the hottest decade on record, the hottest year on record, and the hottest week of all time in satellite record. The year 2010 is already tied with 2007 as the year with the most national extreme heat records and we are only in August.

(By the way, Obama picked up his "we are the ones we have been waiting for" line from Alice Walker, who took it from "Poem for South African Women" by the late June Jordan. I highly recommend Jordan's poetry for acute bouts of cynicism.)