Obama Typifies Spirit of Civic Engagement

Posted January 30, 2009 at 3:23pm

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.

Two weeks 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 from 1982 to 2003) and their use of social networks. Civic generations, like the millennials and the GI Generation before them, 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 advisers contained too many Clinton-era pragmatists and too few minorities in high positions. 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.

• 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. 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 such as Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn over the release of the second half of the Troubled Assets Relief Program funds and the thought leadership of the conservative movement over dinner at columnist George Will’s house the Thursday night before the inauguration. 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 him. 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 advisers of any American president, the Obama team avoided the identity-politics trap into which boomer President Bill 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.

• 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. 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 D.C.-area community renovation activities on the day before his inauguration.

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.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows at the New Democratic Network and co-authors of the book “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics” (Rutgers University Press, 2008).