Alter: The Theater of Big Change

The word "change" is now so overused that it's in danger of sliding past platitude into meaninglessness. But it must be working, because a freshman black senator won 13 out of 22 states last week by selling it—and himself—to a surprisingly broad cross-section of Americans. Will Barack Obama's appeal to independents convince those 796 pivotal Democratic superdelegates that he's got longer coattails than Hillary Clinton and thus the best chance to help expand the party? We don't know yet. But we do know that before long he's going to have to give us a more concrete sense of how this whole change business would work.

The first task is to clarify what changes we're talking about. Even the most successful presidents accomplish only two or three big things in eight years. Obama and Clinton have the same Big Three priorities: end the war in Iraq and restore America's standing in the world; fundamentally reform the health-care system so that it's cost-efficient and covers everybody, and transition to a "green economy" that cuts carbon emissions and creates jobs at the same time. Iraq is a wash: both candidates would repair the breach with our allies. It's fixing health care and leading the country to make the sacrifices necessary to address global warming that would test which one is the real changemaker.

If hope floats, change often sinks. Beating the odds of failure takes both a silver tongue and sharp elbows. So maybe the most relevant contrast is over which candidate is better at the other person's strength. Who's a double threat? To achieve real health-care reform and real energy conservation, Hillary would have to appeal over the heads of politicians with compelling speeches that rally the American people. Obama would have to match his inspirational rhetoric with the toughness needed to get stuff done in early 2009, when he'd have the most leverage.

I'm not sanguine about Hillary's ability to rally the country, when close to half of it implacably dislikes her. Obama's success is partly dependent on a victory big enough to create what he calls a "new majority," which means access to 60 votes in the Senate. We know he's not a policy wonk—that he'll never understand as much about, say, the specifics of out-of-network deductibles as Clinton does. The question is whether, as a newbie, he would know enough of the details and enough about manipulating the levers of power. I tried to use a recent interview to pursue both points (NEWSWEEK, Feb. 4). Obama drilled down into the arcane world of cap-and-trade energy auctions and insurance reimbursements for preventive care, but hastened to add that "technical" knowledge was not the problem: "Hillary and I talk to the same experts. We read the same books. There's a finite number of plans around and that's true on every issue."

As for his political chops, Obama was so intent on proving his readiness that he sideswiped the last two Democratic presidents. "One of the unfair comparisons has been to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, that if you're an outsider you'll make a lot of rookie mistakes and squander the first hundred days," he said. "But one thing I've shown is that I understand Washington and I've got good bipartisan relationships there." While he denied that he'd yet prepared a shortlist, I got the distinct impression that Republican Sen. Richard Lugar could end up as his secretary of State.

Of course those Washington relationships take you only so far. It's easy to forget that President Bush had a good rapport with the Democratic leadership at first. Obama's central argument for himself is simultaneously loftier and more practical. It's that his soaring rhetoric and his history of bipartisan concil-iation are not gauzy, feel-good talents but crucial job skills: "The critical issue for the next president is the ability to mobilize the American public to move forward."

To that end, Obama has hatched a plan for governing in public. Instead of hammering out a health-care program behind closed doors, Obama says he would invite all the players to a conference on C-Span. (President-elect Clinton did something similar with a televised economic conference in Little Rock in late 1992. It helped lead to his breakthrough budget package.)

Dopey idea? I don't think so. All presidents who achieve big change have been first-rate communicators in the theater of the presidency. No FDR "fireside chats," no New Deal. No "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"—and the Berlin wall likely stays up for a while longer, whatever Ronald Reagan's other efforts. The health summit could be transformative. (One could even imagine Obama's turning the floor over to John Edwards for some questioning of the drug- and insurance-company representatives, forced by public pressure to attend.) With the help of a few inspiring Obama speeches, even a boring summit would help educate the public and shape the debate. As Roosevelt used to say, an effective president must be the educator in chief.

Will we learn? The question of who can take the country to a different place is as much about us as it is about the new president. That's what Obama meant when he said on the night of Super Tuesday that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." To succeed, Barack Obama must bet not just on himself, but on the public's appetite for change. We're about to find out how hungry we really are.

Alter: The Theater of Big Change | U.S.