Zakaria: Obama's Third Way

Barack Obama has won more than a presidential victory. He has gained a chance to realign the national landscape and to create a new governing ideology for the West. Since the end of the cold war, two great political trends have coursed through the Western democracies. The first —led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the early 1990s—was the left's steady progress toward greater comfort with free markets and traditional values, in order to appeal to mainstream voters. The second was the ideological decline of conservatism, a movement now riddled with contradictions and corruption, as personified by George W. Bush's big-government, Wilsonian agenda. These two trends have intersected in 2008.

Of course, more Americans still identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. There is a big, red America out there. But that's a reflection of the past three decades of conservative dominance, not a forecast of the future. "Among democratic peoples," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "each generation is a new people."

Conservatives were ascendant in the 1980s and 1990s because they offered powerful prescriptions for the problems of the 1970s—stagflation and social unrest at home, and Soviet expansionism abroad. Arguing for less government, traditional values and a tough response to Moscow worked. But ever since conservatives have trotted out the same answers to every successive crisis. Consider John McCain's response when asked how he would handle the Wall Street meltdown. McCain vowed to end earmark spending, which has absolutely nothing to do with restoring confidence and credit to the markets.

Over the last two decades, the United States has produced an extraordinary burst of prosperity, some of which has reached a broad cross section of the society. We have the biggest houses and the flattest TVs in the world. But we have not been able to tackle a series of other, crucially important problems—affordable health care, good education for the poor and energy efficiency to name three. In all these areas, the solutions cannot come solely from the private sector. They will have to involve a large measure of government efforts.

As free markets, an open society and a diverse population gained strength, the traditional order that conservatism defended has been overturned in dozens of ways by working women, divorce, immigration, and minorities. People began working, living, marrying, and making families in varied ways, and the old structures of society seemed old. Margaret Thatcher's free market reforms slowly upended Britain's settled, class-based society—upon which the British Tory's political dominance had rested. Something similar is at work as red America's youth slowly but surely turn blue.

And yet, this doesn't reflect a return to old-school liberalism either. The world has moved on from the 1960s. Few believe that the government should own the commanding heights of the economy, that central planners should allocate resources and that protectionism will save jobs in the long run. Look at the left in power, from Britain to Australia, and you see pro-market, pro-trade policies aimed at promoting growth. The difference is that they also encourage government efforts in certain areas where the private sector isn't sufficient.

The present crisis presents an opportunity for Obama to recast the traditional divide in American politics. Rather than the usual left-right split over the size and role of government, he has to address himself to the greatest problem most Americans have with Washington: they see their government as predatory and corrupt. They look at the tax code and worry less that it "spreads the wealth" than that it institutionalizes corruption through loopholes and special deals. True reform will mean attacking predatory policies and corruption, from the left and the right.

In the early 1930s, economic and political realities also suggested that the United States was poised for a new era. But such an era happened—and took the particular shape it did—only because of the skill and ambition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If he truly wants to mold the future, Obama will have to demonstrate similar leadership. His favorite thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in 1841 that "the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation ... have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made … Innovation is the salient energy, Conservatism the pause on the last moment." To create a new governing majority, Obama must now embody the idea of innovation.