THE BLOG
03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Take A Line From LBJ And Teddy K

Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Will Nelligan

Nearly a week ago, my editor at Youth Radio emailed me to check in; he wanted to know if I had anything to write about Tuesday's surreal Massachusetts election results. A week later (sorry Brett), I'm still having trouble putting all these thoughts and questions about what happened in my beloved home state - and what it means for my beloved home nation - into cogent form.

Was Scott Brown's upset victory an indictment of a failed Presidential agenda? A statement of American dissatisfaction on Congressional health care legislation? An opening salvo in a Republican battle to regain control of the legislative branch? I honestly don't know; I think that if Bill Clinton chose to comment on this race he'd say - in classic Clinton form - that the special election was as much about all of that as it was about none of it.

It was as much about dissatisfaction with Washington's agenda as it was about the fact that Martha Coakley was simply a sorry excuse for a candidate; a woman whose first step forward after winning the Democratic primary was to take a vacation, and who looked on with incredulity when asked why she wasn't out meeting more people and shaking more hands (in New England of all places!). Overall, there was an odorous political wind blowing on Tuesday night, and Martha Coakley just made it all the more toxic.

Regardless of what defined this race for the people of Massachusetts - whether political candidate or political issue - and regardless of how opinion-makers on both sides of the aisle will try to spin it, I think its high time leaders in Washington started asking themselves a question somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of Massachusetts voters have been asking for nearly half a century: what would Teddy do? Because face it, more than almost all other politicians of his generation, possibly of any generation, Ted Kennedy knew what to do in times like this.

In times of personal tragedy and in times of political defeat, he seemed to innately understand what the country needed to hear and exactly how they needed to hear it. He knew how to inspire the young with his uniquely youthful idealism, and how to engender the not-so-young with his fiery rhetoric in defense of the working and middle classes. He knew how to turn his staunchest opponent on one issue into his staunchest ally on another; and he knew how to conduct the fiercest of fights with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

He's not with us anymore, but on Wednesday night, President Obama needs to channel Teddy as best he can. We all know that Barack Obama can move mountains with his oratory. Whether on race issues, equal pay, health care, the economy, or foreign policy, we have all seen the best of American leadership on display in his speeches here at home and around the world. What he needs more than anything else right now though is an understanding he truly seems to be missing; an understanding that - in theory and in practice - a lot of politicians seem to be missing: that bipartisanship and ideology are not mutually exclusive concepts. That you can, at once, be both fiercely in favor of a particular side of a particular issue, and fiercely open to alternative points of view and perspective.

Teddy was the best at that. He worked with Orrin Hatch, a man who ran his first campaign on a message of rooting out liberals like Ted from Congress, to develop a strong national program that helped poor children get access to quality medical care; he worked with George H. W. Bush to secure legal protections for the disabled, and he worked with the younger Bush to bring improved educational standards to the millions of children for whom an education is their only hope. His strongest allies on one issue were often simultaneously his strongest opponents on another, but Ted respected that, and used it to great advantage. President Obama should too.

The 2010 elections are far from a foregone conclusion; but if President Obama doesn't start to summon the "fight" in him, to simultaneously summon both the Johnson and the Kennedy, both the fiercely ideological and the fiercely post-partisan, we will lose our majorities in Washington, and the President will lose an opportunity to be a truly transformational figure in our nation's history.

I turned 18 on January 11th. Re-electing Barack Obama will be one of the first votes I cast; let's make damn sure that it's not a losing one. As the man who got people my age the right to vote in the first place, Ted Kennedy wouldn't like a loss like that at all.

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