One year from today at Noon Eastern Standard Time the 44th President of the United States will be sworn in. Is the nation hungering for more than just “easy change” but for transformation?
Senator Barack Obama got himself into a heap of problems with the Democratic Party machine when he talked about Ronald Reagan being one of the transformational presidents in our history.
His exact words were, “I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times…I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
There is no doubt that I loathe Ronald Reagan. But I have to agree that his Presidency has had a profound effect on this country since 1980.
You can see articles on my blog- Who ended the Cold War? The Clash of Myth and Reality about how I find the credit given to him for ending the Cold War absolutely ridiculous. The stage had been being set by US Presidents for a long time- just look at some of the comments made by President Gerald R. Ford about this issue that were released after President Ford’s death when he contended that his negotiations of the Helsinki Accords on Human Rights had much to do with the movement towards the demise of the Soviet Union. Of course- there is also the fact that without President Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II had a hand in “tearing down that wall”.
You can also read how much I feel that his inattention to the AIDS epidemic in the United States was beyond reprehensible and that he has the blood of thousands of people on his hands by not addressing the issue for years which led to not funding prevention, care and research appropriately in my piece A Half Century on the Planet: A Reflection on my 50th birthday
So I am no fan of Ronald Reagan but there is no doubt that he was a transformational figure in our political landscape. He is still affecting our nation today nearly 20 years after he first left office. His legacy is one that while I believe was ultimately not for the better but for the worse- and led us towards a nation willing to elect George W. Bush not once but twice- he had a profound effect on the nation. To ignore that is simply putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and going “LA LA LA LA LA”.
Face it, President Clinton never would have dismantled Welfare if it had not been for his desire to pander to the politics of Reagan. President Clinton was not forced into Welfare Reform, he promoted it. Have the Clintons forgotten that little piece of information when warmly remembering the wonderful days of the 1990’s. I liked President Clinton as a President, but he did not change the direction of this nation. He was not a transformational leader like Presidents Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt or President Lincoln. One does not have to agree with the transformation that the transformational leader inspired to acknowledge that that leader did in fact created change.
Walter Dean Burnham had a theory of transformational presidents and non-transformational president. Franklin Roosevelt was a transformational president, somebody who didn’t just occupy the office but fundamentally changed the country according to Burnham. In my opinion he created transformation that I applaud as opposed to the transformation that Reagan created which I deplore.
Senator Obama was correct though. Through the 1970’s we liberals did not tend to the New Deal and Great Society programs that were brilliantly developed to lift up our poor and our lower classes. We were smug and lazy and these programs became bloated bureaucracies that did not move smartly in order to be as effective as possible. They became ripe for discontent for many of the “Reagan Democrats”. Add to that the jingoist American arrogance that came from our declaration that we ended the cold war that allowed us to develop more arrogant foreign policies and swagger in our step on the world stage and you can see the writing on the wall towards our march to the first prëmptive war in our nation’s history- the war where we are currently mired in Iraq.
There is nothing wrong with saying that we need another transformational leader to move us in a new direction. If neither Senators Clinton nor Edwards are willing to acknowledge the realities of our history that is somewhat troubling to me. My sense is that they do indeed understand history but knowing how much many of us liberals loathe Reagan and his legacy it was awfully good political fodder.
“If I understand what he was saying I can’t entirely disagree with it. They both came along at times when society was on the cusp of change and they are both agents of change,” President Reagan’s youngest son Ron Reagan Jr, told the Huffington Post. “As far as Barack Obama being a similar agent of change, that remains to be seen. But what I do see him saying is that we are in a historical moment right now like the 60s and 80s. And I think he’s right. We are overdue for a cultural shift right now.”
I have often thought that Ron Reagan Jr., was not a fan of his father’s politics but a zealous protector of his father’s legacy. I think his comment that we are overdue for a cultural shift is dead on.
In an interview with “American Prospect” magazine, Pulitzer Prize winning Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said:
“History suggests that unless a progressive president is able to mobilize widespread support for significant change in the country at large, it’s not enough to have a congressional majority. For example, Bill Clinton had a Democratic majority when he failed to get health reform.
When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were but to create a fervent desire to address those problems in a meaningful way.”
Mr. Clinton is a political animal and politics trumped everything. He could have chosen to battle for letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the military as he promised during his campaign – he could have made good on that promise- but political expedience won out.
It is eerie that Doris Kearns Godwin’s analysis of President Clinton is not unlike that of Mr. Obama’s.
In discussing Teddy Roosevelt, Goodwin said “Roosevelt faced a conservative Congress. But the muckrakers created, in the middle class especially, an understanding of what had to be done in conservation, in food and drug legislation, in the regulation of the railroads. They revealed in long, factual, investigative pieces the way in which Standard Oil and the trusts were constricting opportunity for smaller, independent businesses. Then, with an aroused public, TR was able to pressure the Congress to do something. Similarly, in the early days of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt used the power of the bully pulpit in his famous fireside chats to drive home to the country at large the need for significant federal legislation in a wide range of areas to ease the problems of the Great Depression.”
And when Robert Kuttner in this December 2007 interview with Goodwin for “American Prospect”, “The public has been trained for 30 years to think that there’s really nothing great the government can do, except perhaps to prevent attacks. Where do you start? How do you change public opinion so that you can then change legislative direction? Goodwin answered.
“The next president has to be able to express a sense of what America can be, what America has been in the past, and what it is not now. It has to be overarching; it cannot be just “we need this program and this program and this program.” He or she has to remind us what made people come to this country in the first place — the belief that here, as Lincoln famously said, we had formed a government “whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” The first and the most difficult task for the new president will be to remind people what made America so special in the first place, to create an emotional desire on their part to bring our performance closer to that ideal, to make clear the wide array of artificial weights that still prevent far too many people from having a fair chance in the race of life, and then and only then to propose the legislative programs or executive actions that will address these shortcomings.”
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss when asked in an interview with Bill Steigerwald of “The Pittsburgh Tribune Review” what makes a great president he answered, “A number of things, but I think the most important ones are the vision to understand where to take the country and the skills to move the American people to that vision. All of this as blessed by historians and the American people of a later generation.”
So transformational presidencies are fundamentally the most important and have been milestones in our nation’s history. Senator Obama seems to understand this truth at a gut level.
In my essay about why I voted for Barack Obama I pointed to an article written by Michael Kinsley in the New York Times where he said “We as a society have shown no tolerance for unpleasant changes, and politicians have shown no enthusiasm for trying to persuade us that they might be necessary. If all you want is happy changes, you really don’t want change at all.”
It is clear that Senator Obama understands more clearly than most that we are at one of those junctures in our history where our nation is craving a transformational president. Every presidential historian point to the fact that a leader cannot create sea change without being able to move the American people. Mr. Kinsley astutely acknowledges that people don’t want unpleasant change and most change that is needed is indeed somewhat unpleasant. It is imperative that someone who sees beyond tinkering with one government program or another and actually inspirses the American people to move and create that change at a societal level. Society isn’t informed by policy as much as policy is informed by society. Finding how to move society forward to a vision that is positive makes creating the necessaary policy for the framework of that vision an easier task. Leadership and policy wonkiness while not necessarily mutually exclusive, are different skills.
There are none among the Republican presidential hopefuls that have a hope of developing a transformational presidency. There is nothing inspiring about this group of men. There is nothing in their words that makes one ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. These men are really not interested in change at all. They hearken back to Reagan’s revolution but have no idea how to create their own and it seems unlikely that they would even want a revolution.
Senators Clinton and Edwards are not as aware of the importance of the transformational leader as is Mr. Obama. They may indeed be able to transform things, but will they inspire? Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton might be able to create some change especially if they were elected in with a Democratic sweep of Congress. But they are focusing on programs to fix things not on inspiring the people to change and have government build programs based on the framework of that societal shift.
I go back to Ron Reagan Jr.’s comment “We are overdue for a cultural shift right now.” I couldn’t agree more. I ardently hope that the American people are honest in their desire to do the hard work for change- but that will require a leader who can lead us in that transformation.
One year from now, I do hope we are swearing in a transformational leader. Our nation needs it, we hunger for it and we are like a nomadic tribe in the desert searching for that oasis- the leader who can move us to change.
I believe that Barak Obama essentially understands this role and is ready to take it. But we’ll see how serious the people are about wanting that real change. I want to challenge us to be better than what Mr. Kinsley thinks about us- that we really only want easy change- because we will not have any change unless the people can be inspired to create change.
We are at a time that demands more than competent bureaucratic leadership and politics as usual it requires inspiration and transformational leadership. The Republicans have no policies of change nor do any of them have the qualities to inspire us- they actually have no interest in any change- it is not to their benefit. Transformational leadership? No I don’t think so- not among this crew.
Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton might create change if given a friendly Congress but will this be enough will it indeed provide that transformational leadership we need and that we crave at this time? Maybe, but I am not willing to that risk to paraphrase former President Clinton. That’s why I have put my hopes into Senator Obama. Simply transformational leadership will transform us, not just our government.
When those 21 guns salute and “Hail to the Chief” is played after the 44th President takes the oath of office one year from today I hope and pray that it will be a moment of transformation for the nation with a leader who is able to lead and inspire that transformation.
On the day before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said eloquently in his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech words that ring so true today.
“Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”