Can Obama Create a Transformational Presidency?

Just about a year before he would be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama set the bar for his presidency during a discussion in Nevada. Invoking Ronald Reagan and JFK before him, Obama distinguished between presidencies that had "put [America] on a fundamentally different path" (Reagan, JFK) and presidencies that had not (Nixon, Clinton). "I think we're in one of those times right now," he told a still-disbelieving editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. And he, Obama almost promised, would be one of America's transformational presidents.

Yet on the way to "transformation," things have gotten impossibly hard for the president-elect. Imagine a cancer patient, on the way to the hospital to begin chemotherapy, involved in a drive-by shooting: This, sadly, is the state of our nation. However committed in principle the new administration is to fundamental change (that's the chemo), a different focus must occupy the field just now (that's the trauma), if only to stabilize the patient for the next stage. I count five major crises that Obama must tackle in the first hundred days. There's not going to be a lot of time for fancy theorizing about transformation.

But this is precisely why Obama needs to be thinking about how transformation gets made now. No president ever put America on a "fundamentally different path" by accident. And at this moment precisely, Obama needs to begin to plan not how he moves the nation through the next three years, or even how he remains popular enough to run for re-election in four years—if that be his choice. Instead, he needs to focus on how he can frame the debate beyond the horizon of the next election to deliver a mandate beyond the desire to escape George Bush. A mandate, that is, for real, fundamental and permanent change.

Part of the difficulty here is precisely what Obama means by change. Early in the campaign, some of his opponents spoke as if "change" meant simply putting a new party in power. Later in the campaign, some of his own softer rhetoric made it sound as if "change" meant simply adopting a few key pieces of critical Democratic legislation (health care, global warming, putting an end to torture). But if Obama is to be true to the campaign that he framed more than a year ago, he needs a second transition team to begin to plan now for what that transformation will be. What are its elements? How can he convince America of their importance? How can he get an inevitably resistant Congress to accept them?

Obama's constant message throughout the campaign was that we needed to "change the way Washington works"—or maybe doesn't work—for America at least, as opposed to the K Street lobbyists who have flourished over the past decade. The country believes (as 88 percent in California believe) that "money buys results." That belief fundamentally erodes trust in government. Rasmussen reported in July and August that less than 10 percent believe Congress is doing a good or excellent job—a lower approval rating than the British Crown had at the revolution. The first step to restoring this faith is thus to fundamentally change the economy of influence that is Washington right now. People need to believe that the government does what it does because it makes sense, not because it mints more campaign dollars.

It is too soon to know exactly which steps would restore that trust best. Among prominent ideas for reform are:

1. Public funding of public elections, an idea that took a severe body blow when candidate Obama turned down public funding in the presidential race, but which may be revived if public funding were tied to "people funding," with the government providing the core money necessary to win a race, while permitting an unlimited amount raised from contributions of $250 or less.

2. Banning lobbyist or PAC money in campaigns—an idea that Obama adopted as a rule of thumb for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee, but which members of Congress have yet to embrace.

3. Eliminating earmarks, the idea pushed by Senator McCain to remove the "obvious corruption" from the current system.

4. Redistricting crafted to produce real competition among parties rather than protection for current incumbents.

5. Real transparency in the way Congress and the government function, using a world of digital tools to bring the people closer in.

6. Technologies that reliably and accurately do the very first task of democracy: counting votes truthfully.

Which among these changes are needed first, or represent the right path? That has yet to be decided. But Obama should begin the conversation now with leaders and citizens inside and outside Washington, and politicians of all stripes. The aim should not be to favor one party over the other. The chance for real bipartisan reform comes instead from neutral efforts to restore faith in whatever government does, leaving to the battles of politics the question of precisely what government should do.

These eight years (if he's lucky) will go quickly. The time during which fundamental reform can be planned will expire within two years. If there is one thing Obama has already achieved, it is creating an appetite for what he promised: a transformational presidency. Republicans and Democrats alike are sickened by the current system; everyone (save the gaggles of lobbyists in D.C.) wants something fundamentally new. There could be no greater political sin than to allow this moment to pass without effect. But change won't define itself. And it won't wait.