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The New Politics: Barack Obama, Party of One

Without entirely realizing it, America elected its first Independent president. The implications for how the country will be governed are profound, exhilarating, and loaded with risk.

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Obama with fellow senators last January.  

The 55 inaugural addresses before the one Barack Obama will deliver next week have run the gamut from poetic (rarely) to prosaic and platitudinous (often), but all have shared a common premise: the promise of newness. Though claims of fresh starts and clean breaks are de rigueur for incoming presidents of both parties, the Democrats have tended to be more explicit—and extravagant—about it. Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “writing a new chapter in our book of self-government,” John Kennedy of “creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law.” Jimmy Carter said his election augured “a new beginning, a new dedication within our government, and a new spirit among us all.” Bill Clinton proclaimed (redundantly) in his first inaugural that “a new season of American renewal has begun,” and in his second he uncorked a veritable neoteric orgy: heralding the coming of “a new century in a new millennium … on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs”; calling for a “new vision of government, a new sense of responsibility, a new spirit of community”; intoning that “the promise we sought in a new land we will find again in a land of new promise”—invoking that final phrase five times for good measure.

Obama, of course, will not need to strain so hard to cloak himself in the aura of novelty (though his people apparently aren’t taking any chances—the event’s official theme, borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, is “A New Birth of Freedom”). As much as the country has grown accustomed to seeing Obama’s mug on their TV screens, the sight of a black man taking the oath of office still promises to shock. But the signifiers of Obama’s newness extend far beyond his race: They are generational, temperamental, intellectual, experiential. He has no real precedent as an occupant of the Oval Office.

Not that this has forestalled the punditocracy from the nonstop analogizing of Obama to his predecessors. He’s the new JFK, the new FDR, the new Lincoln, the new (albeit inverted) Reagan. And the attempts to pinpoint Obama along the ideological spectrum have been similarly unrelenting. The right looks at his economic-stimulus plans and spies an old-school, big-government liberal. The left looks at the tax cuts in that same plan, his hawkish foreign-policy appointments and decidedly nonprogressive economic ones, and his invocation invitation to Rick Warren, and wonders, “Hey, was this guy really serious about all that centrist talk during the campaign? We thought he was only kidding, that he was one of us all along!”

Obama is difficult to pigeonhole not simply because he’s new but because of the newness of the moment that he—and we—inhabit. It’s a moment dominated by an economic crisis that’s shaken bedrock beliefs about the infallibility of free markets. A moment when a revised architecture of power is arising globally, challenging America’s status as an unrivaled superpower. When the networked age has finally arrived, inciting the implosion of the broadcast paradigm that governed politics in the Industrial Age. When the country is being transfigured demographically, hurtling toward becoming a majority-minority nation.

This crescendo of forces produced Obama, made his ascension possible. Now he has a chance to shape the new era, to leave his stamp on it. “This really is the first presidency of the 21st century,” says Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. “Those who try to hold on to twentieth-century descriptions of politics are going to be disappointed and frustrated by what’s about to emerge in the new administration, because American politics no longer fits into the old boxes—and neither does Obama. For better or worse, what he is doing is building a new box.”

By every indication, Obama’s efforts to build that box are being guided not by any hoary orthodoxies or deep partisan convictions but by a strict adherence to the doctrine of pragmatism. He brings to the task not just a new team and a new agenda but the makings of a new kind of political machine. The questions now are whether he can turn his rhetoric about transcending polarities into an effective governing strategy; whether he can forge a cohesive legislative coalition to advance his aims; and, if he can and does, whether the Democratic Party will still look remotely like itself—or more like, well, him.

Every president aspires to transform his party into a graven image of himself—but few are actually able to pull this le parti, c’est moi maneuver. Obama, however, is in a stronger position than most in this regard, in no small part because of his mastery of the media and technology that dominate the new era.


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