I think the most important question about presidential candidates is not what kind of people they seem to be or what they promise to do if elected, but rather how they view the relationship between individuals and the government. Their characters are hard to assess from afar and will change in office; their policy proposals will also shift. But poor presidents always have vague, incoherent, or downright bad ideas about how citizens and the government should relate. Great presidents are elected with compelling new visions of this relationship, and they make those visions real...
Barack Obama launched his campaign by addressing citizens' relationship with government and he never stopped talking about it. It even came up in his 30-minute TV ad. I thought this theme was under-reported, even though it is always the most important question about a presidential candidate, and Obama has a distinctive view.
Obama's core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, "There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. ... All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate."
Obama broke away from the helping model that still guided Hilary Clinton and from the privatism that was the main theme of modern conservatism. On the campaign trail, he modeled his new conception in two important ways--by making his campaign maximally participatory (pushing power out to the network) and by lowering the partisan temperature a notch. He is a Democrat and he was willing to debate and compete with Republicans. But he never seemed to relish this difference. The reason is that citizens are both liberal and conservative, and they need to work together to solve any serious problems. Competition is appropriate in a campaign, but campaigning is a role for politicians, and they are not the heart of politics.
Saturday, November 08, 2008