10/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama the Alchemist

The most cutting condemnation of last week's proceedings in Denver might be, "So what?"

It was all very great and -- to use Peggy Noonan's precise wording -- interesting, but... so what? Record TV audiences and full football stadiums bear the mark of a movement, but in American politics, apathy looms large. Worse than the Obamabots messianic devotion, worse than David Brook's gasping rejoinders, voter passivity can undo history. As Dick Cheney efficiently illustrated, indifference is passion's greatest foil.

Inspiration in Denver was easy when the rhetoric soared. But once through warming itself in The Speech's crackling afterglow, Barack's army faces the same problem that vexes every progressive notion: how is positive sentiment transformed into applicable power. It's the riddle of political alchemy.

A rousing speech brings people to their feet, but once standing where do they go? Get Out The Vote operations, positive press coverage and effective advertising address the election, but in the long run, human capital is needed. Individuals willing to postpone careers and dreams for a larger cause need apply.

For this candidate, the need is acute. What will the New Politics look like, exactly, once the reigns of power are in hand? Will throngs of talented individuals flood the Potomac when an Obama administration moves in? This, at least, seems to be the idea.

A mass private sector defection of lawyers, scholars and financialists into the public sphere could impact politics and policy in tantalizing ways. The concentrated elixir flowing from the lobbyist class could be diluted. A fresh crop of special interests -- because -- as Nicolas Lemann points out in a recent New Yorker, all interests are special -- may begin to forge a new political culture. But without this kind of turnover, the status quo is unlikely to move and the campaign, in hindsight, could look like so much lofty hope.

But how likely is a wave of capitalist refugees?

The massive Obama campaign apparatus may be the best crystal ball. Anyone involved on a state-level campaign during the primary season met them, the legions of the mostly young, galvanized by their candidate's redemptive promise and the chance to wash out eight years of shame. These are the students and recent grads that would have needed no justification in promptly pursuing profitable careers or degrees, but instead embraced the mildly destitute romance of campaign life. They were drawn to something larger than themselves.

So the campaign is full of energized kids. So what? Countless failed revolutions can claim as much. But a positive reformation is not like choosing a vice president; it takes time. Let's hope this one is just beginning.