Friday, November 7, 2008

The audacity of responsibility

Barack Hussein Obama was never supposed to be elected president. Not with that name, his skin color and certainly not by an electoral landslide.

But he was. And regardless of who you voted for, I dare anyone with a sense of history to not be moved at the sight of his family taking the stage at Grant Park afterward or his face splashed on the traditional Time magazine as the 44th president.

With yet another Democratic tide, the debate rages on about what kind of country we are, liberal or conservative. The answer is obvious: We are both.

Our history likewise is terrible and triumphant. It is one of injustice, of shackling and enslaving a race of people, of hosing them down and turning the dogs on them just five decades ago. But it is one fundamentally of freedom and liberty, from overthrowing the British to found this nation, to restoring these virtues by vanquishing the Nazis in World War II.

The election of our first African-American president 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation could be and should be a powerful end to a long chapter of prejudice, bringing us ever closer to the ideals our country was founded upon -- what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature."

From Sydney to Athens to Kogelo, Kenya, people were literally crying in the streets after Obama's election Tuesday.

Voter turnout reached a high not seen since Lyndon Johnson swashbuckled his way through the West Wing. After decades of cynicism since Watergate, people are excited to be part of democracy. They believe in it.

No other leader could have inspired this euphoria, this onslaught of optimism, both here and abroad. Not living, anyway.

No one could live up to this hype and Obama won't. There's always the temptation to play it safe when you are the first of your kind, a living symbol. He surely has been lectured that if his tenure is an abject failure, there won't be another black president for decades to come.

But I think Obama is better suited by the advice the late Gov. George Romney gave John Engler on his inauguration day in 1991: Be bold.

Run the country for the next four years as though you will not be re-elected. Because you very well might not be. You may be blamed in 2012 for the continuing economic devastation or a new terrorist attack. There could be a powerful Republican backlash, whether you're cautious or go at breakneck speed.

You ran on an ambitious agenda and results-oriented philosophy that government can be one of the solutions to our problems. Indeed, the majority of Americans are willing to embrace this idea, more than they have since Ronald Reagan. Look how laughable the Republicans' red-scare tactics turned out to be.

Joe McCarthy reigned a half-century ago, kiddies, and the truth is most voters today didn't live through that. They aren't spooked by the mere mention of socialism, especially when the charge against Obama was so absurd. (And here's a newsflash for the Ayn Rand crowd: We're all commies now, anyway. That's what happens when the evil guv'ment bails out capitalism by buying out the banks).

After covering Obama for two years and reading reams of his work, I don't believe he's wild-eyed lefty, but rather a pragmatic liberal who will govern with a centrist sensibility. He is more progressive than the country, just as Reagan was more conservative in 1980. But through his flexibility, oratory and discipline, the Great Communicator enjoyed great success and moved America to the right.

Obama has the potential to be that kind of transformative figure, which is why he scares the bejeezus out of the bludgeoned GOP. That's a little difficult to articulate, which is why it's simpler to shout that he's a Muslim who pals around with terrorists.

But Mr. President-Elect, I don't see voters giving you the grace of four more years if you come back with empty pockets, mumbling that it's just too hard to do much in a staggering recession while waging a war on terror and you need more time.

Voters can be less forgiving of historic candidates.

And you have the advantage of a very blue Congress. Unlike your recent Democratic predecessors, you have extensive legislative experience and know how the game is played. Adding brass-knuckled U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel as your chief of staff would further inspire confidence.

So go forth and stick to your guns. You believe that increasing infrastructure spending will be a jolt to our economy. You believe that health care is a right, not a privilege, and will save businesses and individuals billions by making us more competitive.

You believe that the government needs to invest in clean energy, instead of waiting for the market to catch up, to create jobs and clean up the planet. You believe in a military strategy in which Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the war on terror, not Iraq.

So do it and let history judge.

Most of all, challenge us. Challenge us to be part of this change, to sacrifice during these manic-depressive times, to get off our collective keisters and do something for the country we love.

Americans yearn for a leader. Your charge is deceptively simple, Mr. Obama.

Be one.

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