Shift in tone will bring a watershed for nation

By Peter Canellos
Globe Staff / November 5, 2008

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CHICAGO - The people who crowded Grant Park last night, straining for a glimpse of President-elect Barack Obama, were aroused by a lot of passionate issues - war, jobs, race - and yet they insisted that no single goal, nothing that could be written out and measured, defined their expectations for the next administration.

"It's everything," said a tearful Teri McClain of Seattle.

"It's having a president with a world view that most Americans can believe in," declared Chris Godfrey of Des Moines, Iowa.

And yet Obama's clear-cut victory, bolstered by strong majorities of his own party in both houses of Congress, can be read as a mandate for some very specific policy changes that could, by themselves, have momentous impact. Withdrawal from Iraq. Renewal of the six-decade quest for national health insurance. The launch of a major government-funded quest for renewable energy.

Beyond the policies, Obama's election will stand forever amid the great milestones of America's racial history, the end of a torturous progression from emancipation to the civil rights movement to the election of the first black president.

And yet the biggest change of all - the one that the hundreds of thousands of supporters who came to Grant Park are expecting - will be intangible: The change of tone in the country.

Any president's greatest power - as chief executive, commander-in-chief, symbol of the nation - is in the tone he sets, a message that infects every corner of the federal government, penetrates American popular culture, and shapes international opinion of the United States and what it stands for.

And in this respect - as a shift in tone - Obama's election is a watershed that could rank with the elections of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Every rise to the presidency is serendipitous. No one can assume that he or she has the credentials and therefore will get the job. Sometimes the serendipity seems merely lucky or accidental, but Obama's election was a more premeditated meeting of man and moment.

It wouldn't have been possible for Obama, a first-term senator with a slender legislative record, to secure the Democratic nomination this year or to seize the White House were it not for the man he will replace, George W. Bush.

In the months and years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush invoked some of the most resonant words and images from American history to justify his policies. In his "axis of evil" speech that laid the groundwork for the Iraq war, Bush spoke of freedom as a value Americans must fight to protect by taking on "evil-doers" abroad. He also talked of exporting American good will and compassion, but framed the coming battle in militaristic terms.

"We have known freedom's price," Bush declared in January 2002. "We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, we will see freedom's victory."

Yet growing numbers of people came to see Bush's policies as being at odds with American values. Where once Americans prided themselves on never starting wars, but rather accepting them if no other option were available, Bush seemed too eager to fight in Iraq.

Where Americans prided themselves on their defense of religious freedom, Bush seemed too willing to advertise his Christianity. Where Americans valued their civil liberties, Bush believed people would accept electronic surveillance as a means to root out terrorists. And where Americans prided themselves on their humanity, Bush seemed too willing to excuse alleged torture of prisoners in American custody.

All of the Democrats who lined up to run for president in 2008 were forceful in their denunciations of Bush's policies. Yet only Obama seemed to answer Bush on his own terms, invoking freedom and history and destiny to oppose the very actions that Bush claimed were in defense of freedom.

In announcing his campaign on a frigid day in February 2007, Obama stood outside the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois - Lincoln's longtime home - and delivered a speech full of explicit and implicit references to the Great Emancipator.

Obama ended his speech by cribbing from Lincoln's two greatest speeches, declaring that, "Starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth."

The "birth of freedom" is from the Gettysburg Address, and "finish the work" is from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, speeches that historians view alongside the Declaration of Independence as expressions of American ideals.

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln portrayed African slavery as the country's original sin. A political compromise had allowed people to remain enslaved in the new nation, even though many Founding Fathers believed it violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Extending freedom to black people, Lincoln believed, validated the core national principle that all men were created equal.

Under normal circumstances, Obama's status as the mixed-race son of an African father and mother from Kansas would be a political disadvantage, because an unknown number of whites remained wary of electing a black president. But to an electorate bruised by Bush's policies and eager for change, Obama's election would carry great symbolic weight - validating Lincoln's ideals - and offer a contrast to Bush's vision of how to expand freedom.

Even those Americans who knew little about Lincoln's speeches seemed to understand that Obama's election would carry greater significance - and stand as a greater rebuke to Bush - than that of any other Democratic contender.

Obama cast himself as a candidate of destiny, and his unique background helped spark his breakthrough victory in the Iowa caucuses.

But while Democratic primary voters were placing great hope in Obama, inspired by their desire for the biggest possible contrast with Bush, the man himself remained something of an unknown. And many people feared that the reality of Obama might be less appealing than the promise of Obama. In fact, his actual proposals weren't especially bold, and differed little from that of his main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Obama's approach to politics was quite different from Clinton's, however. His elevating rhetoric underscored his main objection to Clinton - that her strategic approach to framing issues was timid and conceded too many points to the Republicans. Her husband Bill had achieved success through "triangulation," blunting Republican momentum by claiming some of their most popular issues for himself.

Obama's complaint about "the smallness of our politics," seemed aimed at Hillary Clinton, and he succeeded in convincing many voters that she and her husband were part of an old yin-and-yang dynamic in Washington that had to change.

Her Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war was offered as proof that she gave away too much to Bush; by contrast, Obama had delivered a prescient speech before the war warning of unforeseen consequences and disputing the necessity of Bush's "pre-emptive" war.

That speech added considerable ballast to Obama's campaign. He may not have built an extensive record, but he could point to one big instance, at least, when he showed the kind of moral courage he was promising to take to Washington.

Still, Clinton eventually found potency in her own political persona, as a fighter. Obama's political strength was based on his life story - but therefore, in many voters' eyes, unearned. Clinton, despite her advantage of having been the president's wife, had picked up a lot of scars in the trenches.

Her feistiness, and willingness to roll up her sleeves, appealed to blue-collar voters, many of whom were resistant to Obama because of his "elite" sensibility.

But just when Clinton seemed to be taking command of the race, Obama was rescued by black voters, who turned out in record numbers in South Carolina to blunt Clinton's momentum, and then, in the "Potomac Primary" of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., to give him a lead in delegates that he would not relinquish.

In the general election, the Republican nominee, John McCain, tried some Clintonesque "triangulation" of his own, seeking to appropriate the "change" mantle from Obama.

McCain sought to redefine "change" in a way that flattered his own history - both of trying to change election laws to thwart special interests, and of bucking his own party when necessary. In McCain's view, the people wanted a change from Bush, yes, but also from the "ways of Washington," a formulation that conveniently included the Democratic-led Congress.

McCain had some success, but then both candidates confronted a national financial crisis. Sensing that the crisis only cast further disrepute on Bush and the Republicans, Obama concentrated on a measured presidential demeanor and offering a low-key defense of his policies.

His caution will no doubt lead many people to minimize the extent of his electoral mandate, suggesting that he offered himself mostly as an alternative to Republican incompetence.

But many groundbreaking presidents spent their general-election campaigns trying to defang critics rather than fire up supporters.

Roosevelt, who was correctly suspected of planning a major government expansion, spent much of his 1932 campaign stressing fiscal prudence. Reagan, who was correctly suspected of planning a defense build-up that would unsettle both allies and enemies, spent much of his 1980 campaign stressing his commitment to peace.

Obama's desire to increase government's role in health care, education, and energy is well known, and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress will probably join him in creating the most activist government since the early 1970s.

His promise to use extensive diplomacy rather than "axis of evil"-style threats - and to make the rebuilding of America's image overseas a top priority - is similarly well known. And in this effort, his own best weapon will be himself.

Obama's special destiny as a candidate of change may have been born as a political idea, to contrast with Clinton's long experience in Washington. But over the past 21 months, it has become an expression of faith.

Among those who gathered early outside Grant Park were fans from around the world. They, like millions of Americans - were yearning for an American president who could inspire them again.

Obama will face difficult problems and, eventually, punishing political opposition. But in delivering on the central promise of his campaign - to change the tone in Washington, America, and across the world - he can succeed just by showing up.