Sunday, October 4, 2015

The American Debate: Now comes the hard part

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, and retired military members, gets ready to sign an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, and retired military members, gets ready to sign an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
One of these days I expect to visit the cereal aisle of my local supermarket and discover Barack Obama's saintly smile on a Wheaties box.

Hey, why not? He's already a marketing phenomenon. His circular logo, with the red and white path fronting a rising sun, is as ubiquitous as the Target bull's-eye and the Nike swoosh. He's the first great 21st-century brand; in Web parlance, he's Commander in Chief 2.0.

He's a new kind of president, offering a new paradigm for governance, at a time when the nation is in the throes of tumultuous economic, cultural and demographic change. He seems well-suited to this historic moment; indeed, he seems to embody the America of the new millennium. And with the aid of his cutting-edge communication tools, he seems uniquely well-positioned to bond with a citizenry that is thirsting to believe - assuming, of course, that a citizenry hooked on instant gratification can be persuaded to be patient.

The big question - which will dominate the political plot arc of the next four years - is whether he can pull it off. He has a few trifling things on his plate, such as a potentially cratering economy, an expanding army of the jobless, an antiquated health-care system, a couple of wars and a cosmic terrorist threat, a global economic challenge from China and India, a busted immigration system, an oil-dependent energy policy, a teetering Social Security program (with baby-boomer retirements already starting), a financially imperiled Medicare program, and a strained U.S. military.

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    Obama not only intends to tackle all that, he also intends to change the way Washington does its tackling. He wants to craft a "post-partisan" approach to governance, whereby Democrats and Republicans will link arms and sing "Kumbaya." But given the ingrained ideological tensions in Washington, plus the blogosphere and the cable-news beasts that require 24/7 feeding - indeed, given the fact that partisan warfare has been a staple of the city since its founding - Obama's new paradigm will be, shall we say, severely tested.

    But Obama starts his tenure with unprecedented public support - the preinaugural polls reported that he is more popular entering office than his five immediate predecessors - and that includes considerable good will from Republicans, many of whom were heartened by Obama's centrist national-security appointments. Most Americans clearly feel invested in his success, if only because the repercussions of failure would be so widely shared.

    And Obama intends to communicate his aims and curry support in new-paradigm fashion. Lest we forget, during the campaign he raised half a billion dollars online (average donation: $80), and amassed an unprecedented 13 million e-mail addresses. He spread his brand on Facebook and a slew of other social-networking sites (known to the new-paradigmers as "socnets"), where he picked up an additional 5 million supporters.

    In short, he now has a grassroots reach unparalleled in politics - the potential makings of a new kind of political machine. Most of the Obama campaign database has been transferred to a newly created group, "Organizing for America," which is housed inside the Democratic National Committee, which in turn is chaired by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an Obama insider. The potential here is obvious: Whenever the president needs to light a fire under recalcitrant congressmen, he can use the Internet to summon his citizen army.

    The new paradigm is already in evidence at the presidential Web site,, which will be overseen by Obama's director of new media. Naturally, there's a blog. One early entry spells out the grassroots nonpartisan credo: "President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority . . . and the Internet will play an important role in that."

    Obama plans to post congressionally enacted laws on the site for five days, to invite public comment before he signs them. He's also soliciting citizen ideas about Web site content, and is offering regular "e-mail updates" on "major announcements and decisions" to any citizen who wants to sign up. A few mouse clicks, and you're connected. The new paradigm is all about connectivity.

    Naturally, it's in Obama's political interest to communicate in this fashion, and skeptics will undoubtedly dismiss his online messages as mere administration propaganda. But all presidents seek to use the bully pulpit to advance their aims; the 21st-century pulpit just happens to be virtual.

    The thing is, Obama also takes big risks on the Web site. Check it out for yourself. Click on "The Agenda" and scroll through the scores of promises, carried over from the campaign. What's most startling is their specificity - or, in the cutting-edge lingo, their transparency. One tiny example: Obama intends to ensure that "10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025." On other fronts, he vows to "raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011" and "completely eliminate income taxes for 10 million Americans."

    In old-paradigm politics, it's quite dicey to itemize one's ambitions so openly. Come election time, the Republicans presumably will be all too happy to cite the unmet promises on Obama's Web site, using his target numbers against him.

    That's assuming, of course, that they get any traction. If Obama can navigate his way through this crisis, using his brand to nurture support, and tame the impatient impulses of our sound-bite culture, then the new paradigm will surely be emulated by all who succeed him.

    Contact Dick Polman at See his blog at

    Inquirer National Political Columnist
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