Call and Response: The President and the People

July 11, 2008

During my hiatus of a summer teaching engagement in Berlin, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. I took the occasion to send an email to an old friend, who now worked training dogs to work with immigration control agents.

Here’s what I wrote: “How about Obama? These are wondrous political times to be living through. America is possibly on the verge of a Black president, who seems a bit like the second coming of JFK?! We are in for a hell of a ride, I tell you.”

My dog-training friend responded as follows: I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm regarding politics. I wouldn’t call it wondrous, more like something I stepped in at the Canine Center. Don’t put Obama on such a high pedestal, the fall hurts more.”

The Political Times Versus the Political Candidate

I have thought a lot about that email exchange in the last few days, as it gets to the very core of what Obama’s presidency might mean for America. It is vital to begin by clearly stating that my friend’s response missed the fundamental point that I was trying to make in my email. My email was not meant to suggest that Obama himself, nor his politics, were wonderful and energizing. Rather I was trying to say that the political times seemed to be wondrous and full of portent. My email was not praising person, Obama, nor putting him on a pedestal, but rather was celebrating the current mood of the country, and the way that Obama seems somehow connected to a deeper force moving through the people. There is a distinction between

1) the goals and ideas of a specific candidate, and

2) the deeper mood and desires of the people themselves who become inspired by a candidate,

It is that distinction that raises some interesting points about the role of a President is, and about the relationship between a democratic president and the people he ostensibly “leads.”

America’s Political Times: 1960s Redux?

Now this may all seem rather mysterious, so let me be more clear about what I call “a deeper force moving through the people.” Here are some facts about today’s deeper force. About 4 million new voters have already voted for their first time in the 2008 Democratic primaries—a record-shattering number. Hillary Clinton, the clear front-running establishment candidate in the Democratic primaries, was upended by a completely unpredicted surge of anti-establishment and passionate Democratic voters. These activists exploded onto the political scene in a cacophony of “new voter” projects and similar innovations across the blogosphere that are redefining how Americans communicate and network. Many of these new voters and blogosphere dwellers are young—part of the surging generation of “Millenials” (18-29 year olds) who are now the largest demographic in American history and who are just now coming into their own politically (see previous posts of “The Obama Generation” and “Millenials Rising”). With the rise of this demographic, the center of gravity in American politics has shifted downwards—towards a younger, fresher, more energized electorate than we have seen in decades.

It is the convergence of these varied new forces that have upended American politics and put the nation on the verge of electing not only its first Black president, but also one of its youngest presidents, and one who hails from a grass-roots community organizing background to boot. Something unusual and dramatic is brewing, and one cannot deny the powerful youthful energies surging through the country, whether or not one supports the Obama candidacy. Support it or not—it represents something real and meaningful moving through the American electorate.

What may be happening is perhaps not so different than what happened in America in the 1960s. In the 1960s America also witnessed an exploding youth generation (The Baby Boomers), a surge in civic activism, and a youthful president (Kennedy) who symbolized and energized youthful energies across the country. If we are repeating some of those historic patterns, Obama, like Kennedy, can be seen as less of a directive leader, who will govern America with a specific platform and agenda from above, and more of a energizing catalyst, who will influence America by inspiring passionate and unpredictable political forces in the broader community. Obama in this way is not so much offering America a specific platform and set of policies but is rather offering Americans a way to buy into and become part of a growing sea of social movements and community organizing projects surging in their communities. Some people may be unnerved by this growing wave of new voters and community activists–asking “Who are These People, Anyway?”–but there is no denying they are here, and they are fired up.

Experience a bit of the mood of it all in these two videos.

People have become inspired by the Obama campaign, by its invitation to people to organize their own events and community organizing teams, and by the way it has inspired millions of young people to directly involve themselves in politics teams (remember the famous “Yes We Can” video? It was created independently of the Obama campaign).

Letting the Political Genie Out of the Bottle

Where will it all go? That won’t be up to Obama. As president Obama might serve as a catalyst for community activism—but he won’t be its director and will not be able to direct its course.

In this, too, it’s not so different than what Kennedy faced. When Kennedy was elected as a representative of a surging youth movement, and when he gave his famous inaugural calling on Americans to step up, get involved, and “ask what you can do for your country,” he could not have predicted the forces he was helping to set into motion. In fact, he was inspiring forces like James Farmer, a leader of the new Congress Of Racial Equality, who (in the words of Kennedy’s biographer) “had been inspired by Kennedy’s words about change and freedom. He was convinced that this new President wanted to end American segregation” (see Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, p. 123). And so Farmer worked with others to organize dramatic civil rights protests, such as the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses deep into the south, knowing that they would face violence and police riots. Farmer was certain that the President was with him…so he did it.

Kennedy might have believed in ending segregation, but the record shows that he DID NOT support direct political action such as Farmer’s civil rights protests in order to speed desegregation along. It didn’t matter. Across the country people, especially young people, had been inspired by the IDEAS and SPIRIT that Kennedy represented, and they were on the move—with or without their president. As the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protests took off in the 1960s, Kennedy was worried that they were pushing too far, too fast. He called his political advisors and said “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them!” (Reeves, p. 125). But nobody could stop the growing tide of activism—not even the president who helped inspire it. When Kennedy’s advisor called one Freedom Rider and asked her to slow it down, she replied that “nothing could stop them now. We’re going to show those people in Alabama who think they can ignore the President of the United States” (Reeves, p. 126).

Here’s how Kennedy’s biographer, Richard Reeves, describes the president’s response:

“The President they were quoting actually wanted them to go back home, and did not understand the reach and resonance of his own owords. People were listening to him in a way they listen only to a president. The country was moving again. Kennedy would have to catch up or try pt stop this parade….The travelers on the road to freedom were not listening to the [President’s Advisor’s] words. They thought they had heard John Kennedy’s music.” (134).

Citizen Direct Action: The Coming Storm

This phenomenon is exactly what I referring to in my email to my friend. Across the nation, young voters and community activists are hearing Barack Obama’s music, and responding to the “reach and resonance” of his words. Radio shows are filled with community organizers talking about how they have built an organization of activists through Obama’s campaign, they have built connections between people, and how they intend to stay organized and active even after the election.

In Denver, one Obama organizer on the July 10th KGNU radio show “Swing State” was asked:

“What will it mean to have organized all those people and created all this energy, after the election? What will happen after the election? Will Obama just expect all these people to go home, so he can govern?

She answered: “What we hope to happen is a critical mass of organized people who will be able to hold the next president accountable to their values and goals. Community organizing gives people the tools, so they are not just individuals cheering for a political team, but are organized activists, working together to make things happen.”

This kind of language suggests a storm of community action to come, whether Obama wins or not, and whether he supports the coming storm or not. The Obama campaign has resonated in the people and catalyzed a broader movement—and in this, the power of the presidency is revealed to be far greater than often discussed in America’s classical founding documents and in the textbooks.

Presidential Powers Reconsidered

Certainly most of America’s Founding Fathers did not see the president as a catalyzing agent of broad social movement. The Framers’ Federalist Papers on the subject of presidential leadership generally describe the president as a fairly weak and detached leader, responding to the initiatives of Congress, and certainly not firing up the people with calls for direct action. The Framers didn’t imagine a president with the kind of resonating and emotional connection to the people that some modern presidents seem to have represented.

Still today, the modern textbooks tend to miss something about this role of the President. Review political science textbooks and you will find a great deal of attention on the powers of the President— and these powers (such as the veto power, personnel appointment powers, the power to speak to the public on TV, etc.) are seen as something the President uses to achieve his agenda, to move his policies through Congress, and to bring the nation together around his priorities. There is rarely attention to a different kind of power and role of the President—the power to catalyze a national mood (as Reagan arguably did in the Conservative 1980s) and the power to energize social movements that fundamentally transform the country (as Kennedy did in the 1960s). And there is no attention to the way in which the people can use the presidency and its evocative powers to advance the people’s agenda, the people’s policies, and the people’s priorities.

These kinds of populist powers inherent in the modern presidency are slippery in that they aren’t fully “under the command” of the President, and they often inspire actions far beyond the control of the President–but they are true and real powers of a president and his campaign, nonetheless, these powers to evoke and powers to call forth.

What we are seeing in 2008 is the mysterious unfolding of a new surge in democratic activism, and this surge cannot be separated from the Presidential candidate whose “music” has inspired the hopes of so many. No one knows where it goes from here—and that is what I meant when I wrote my friend that we are living in wondrous political times, and in for a hell of a ride.