Wednesday, January 28, 2009

new rules for a new era

One week after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is clear that his election and ascension to the presidency have moved America from one political era to another. Realignments like these occur about every four decades with the coming of age of a new, large, dynamic generation of young Americans whose political participation is enabled by a new communication technology. The most recent makeover stemmed from the emergence of the "civic" Millennial Generation (born between 1982 to 2003) and their use of social networks. Civic generations, like the Millennials and the GI Generation before it, are group-oriented, cooperative, and pragmatic. Their behavior stands in stark contrast to the individualistic and ideological Baby Boomers, who dominated American politics for the previous 40 years.

Makeovers or realignments change almost everything about U.S. politics -- election results, public policy, and presidential behavior. Apparently not everyone has noticed this change.

Perhaps the sharpest criticism of the Obama transition came from an unexpected quarter -- "progressive activists" and some of their congressional allies. These disappointed critics thought Obama’s cabinet and corps of advisors contained too many Clinton era pragmatists and too few minorities in high positions. Author and New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai captured the obsolete nature of their complaint perfectly:

"That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago but that seems sort of baffling at the dawn of the Obama era."

Bai compared those who criticized Obama to liberals of the early 1960s, such as Norman Mailer, who expected John F. Kennedy, as America's first Catholic president, to act like a political "outsider." But even though he is America's first African-American president, Barack Obama is no more an outsider than was JFK. Just like Kennedy, Obama's transition decisions were thoroughly consistent with the civic era we have now entered. And Obama’s behavior during the transition provides clear indicators of how the President will govern and the nation will respond in this civic Millennial era.

Here are just a few of the things to expect:

* Limited or no use of ideological labels. Unlike his predecessor who consistently described himself as a "compassionate conservative" or Democrats who spent much of the past four decades seeking a label for themselves that would replace the discredited "liberal," Barack Obama never labels himself ideologically or even uses terms such as conservative, moderate, or liberal. As the President said in his Inaugural Address, "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

* Avoiding moral absolutes as the primary standard by which to structure and evaluate policy. In his farewell address to the nation, George W. Bush said, "America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil . . .. Good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise." In fairness, Bush was referring to global terrorism in his remarks, but the moralistic tone that characterizes idealist eras typified the approach of his Administration in almost all policy areas, especially social issues. President Obama signaled a far different and more pragmatic tone in his inaugural address "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

* Working across partisan and institutional lines to get things done in the common interest. Obama’s successful campaign put an end to Karl Rove’s "play to the base" strategy that Democrats also attempted at great cost in many of their recent presidential campaigns. Unlike candidates in the idealist era that just ended, Obama ran a truly national campaign and competed in formerly rock-ribbed Republican states. He was rewarded with victories in nine 2004 red states. The same approach continued during the transition with Obama actively courting die-hard Republican Senators like Oklahoma's Tom Coburn over the release of the second half of the TARP funds and the thought leadership of the conservative movement over dinner at George Will’s house the Thursday night before the inaugural. The end result was bipartisan support for Obama's first legislative initiative with six Republicans, some very conservative, voting with Obama, offsetting the eight Democrats, some very liberal, who voted against the President-elect. It was an outcome reminiscent of the bipartisan votes of the 1950s and something that will continue to occur in this civic era.

* The end of identity politics. Even as Obama appointed the most demographically diverse Cabinet and set of personal advisors of any American President, the Obama team avoided the identity politics trap into which Boomer President Clinton had often fallen. Any mention of ethnicity or lifestyle differences was made from the perspective of unity and what all Americans have in common. As Obama said in his inaugural address: "We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness . . . We are shaped by every language and culture drawn from every end of this Earth…we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself."

* A new emphasis on personal and societal responsibility, service, and sacrifice. The ideas that individuals have the responsibility to behave properly to serve their community and nation and to sacrifice for the common good are all key civic era values. President Obama emphasized these values at many points during the transition, personally demonstrating his commitment to making Martin Luther King, Jr., Day a National Day of Service when he and his wife, Michelle, participated in DC area community renovation activities on the day before his inauguration. He returned to these themes throughout his inaugural address: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility--a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

Last November marked the electoral realignment of the United States from an idealist to a civic era. It changed voting patterns and party coalitions for at least the next four decades. But that was only the beginning of the change that has come to America. With the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first president of the new civic era, the rules that guide the behavior of our leaders and eventually all Americans have changed as completely and substantially as have our politics. The nation is fortunate to have as its new leader a President prepared to teach by example how to live by these new rules for a new era.