Change is for real

In the adoring throng watching President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday night, a camera found Jesse Jackson, tears streaming down his face. I was immediately taken back in time 20 years, to a phone call I received from Gerry Austin wanting to know if I’d make some commercials for the California primary.

After three presidential campaigns, a dozen U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races and more congressional contests than I choose to remember, I had sworn off candidate campaigns and was concentrating on ballot measures and issue advocacy. But Jackson, who was making his voice heard in 1988, was an adventure I didn’t want to miss. I wound up making commercials for the closing primaries and a five-minute film to introduce Jesse for his speech to the Democratic convention. The theme of that film, of which I’m still quite proud, was “Keep hope alive!” — Jackson’s mantra for the campaign.

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But Barack Obama’s victory is about much more than hope, about more than an African-American becoming president. Yes, that is an event many thought they would never see in their lifetime. Yes, it is a historic moment.

Yes, it does validate our collective belief that only in America could his story happen. Yes, it does put an end to such theories like the Bradley effect. Yes, it does suggest we have moved to an era of post-racial politics. But there is much more to the chant of “Yes we can.”

As Obama himself proclaimed, “This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance to make that change.” The quarter-million supporters assembled in Chicago roared their approval. And three million BlackBerrys, iPhones and assorted other PDAs around the country vibrated with a personalized “thank you” message from the candidate. “This is your time,” Obama told the crowd in Chicago and the millions watching around the nation. That is the real change Barack Obama made with his election — a change in the way politics is played in America and the way business is done in Washington.

For the better part of the last three decades, a conservative Republican agenda has driven public policy in America. Even through Bill Clinton’s two terms, conservative orthodoxy constrained what a Democratic president could do.

America has been, by and large, a center-right nation for 50 years. George Bush, Dick Cheney, two wars and an economic meltdown have routed the Republican Party in the last two election cycles. Obama will take office with Democrats in firm control of Congress, Republicans in disarray and challenges so dire that 80 percent of Americans think the country is seriously off track. Drastic changes must be made and our new president has promised he will make them, with the support of the army of dedicated advocates who put him in office.

President-elect Obama does face the greatest challenges of any president since FDR. But he also has lot of options about how to deal with them. He will likely bring Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D–Ill.) to the White House as chief of staff, a tough street fighter of a politician with White House experience and strong connections on the Hill. The new president has made clear he’ll form a bipartisan government of mostly new faces with new ideas and little political baggage. And most importantly, he comes to power with a very efficient political machine, perhaps the strongest in history. It is a machine built on new technology with the ability to instantly communicate with 3 million-plus members of a movement, who not only voted for change but are willing to work to make it happen.

Nearly 50 years ago, another senator from Illinois, Republican Everett Dirksen, said of grassroots power, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” No Congress has ever felt the kind of heat this new president will be able to generate.

There is no way of predicting whether President Obama will first tackle energy, our floundering financial system or healthcare reform. Whichever it is, “This is a perfect storm for getting big and important things done,” former Democratic Rep. Tom Downey was quoted as saying this week. And Obama has what he needs for such a unique time in history: a Democratic majority with a pent-up desire to do something and a grassroots army ready to roll over anyone who gets in its way. Their message for practitioners of the old politics in Washington is a simple one: “Yes we can.”

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com