Barack Obama is a reluctant people's president, but to become a great president and deliver on his promise of "fundamental change in Washington" he has to act like one.
To end the war in Iraq and win in Afghanistan, create jobs while reining in corporate excess, usher in a green economy, and reform health care, he has to fall back on his community activist roots. Simply put, Obama rise to the presidency has more in common with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez than with that of George Bush.
Like most people-power presidents, he was running against a well-established political machine within the Democratic Party for which Hilary Clinton was the heir-apparent. John McCain, a Vietnam war hero, was seen by many as tested and pragmatic, and seemed a natural choice for commander-in-chief when compared to Obama, who had not even been a boy scout. And his being relatively young, and an African-American in a country where race still matters, made his chances seem impossible.
But like most people-power presidents, Obama has an appeal, personal charisma and a political vision that resonated with the moment, making Clinton look like an "old hand" in Washington with business-as-usual dealings, while McCain proved archaic and sluggish in the national debates.
Obama mobilized a cross section of the populace -- Democrats, Republicans, independents, Latinos, African-Americans, rich and poor whites -- to form a formidable grassroots coalition of, at times, mutually opposed interests, but who could unite under him.
He was running as an outsider when the country was in limbo -- two wars on terror without an end in sight, mounting costs and casualties and questions of sanctioning torture. Domestically, the U.S. was in a recession thanks to capitalism gone wild and there was concern that the fight against the war on terror had come home to roost in the form of domestic wire taps.
In these times, being an old steady hand in Washington was a liability. The very qualities that made Obama a long shot had become his strength.
But if these strengths are not to become his Achilles heel, Obama has to keep those who voted for him "fired up and ready to go." He needs to use that same popular machinery that elected him in getting his agenda out to the American public. Otherwise he is a sitting duck in a Washington pond. Only with the majority of the people behind him can vote-conscious politicians implement his agenda.
Healthcare reform is one good example. While the recent bipartisan healthcare summit is laudable, Obama was putting the cart before the horse. It is not the politicians in need of convincing -- it is the public. He has to hold court with the American people if the 43-per-cent-in-favor-and-43-per-cent-opposed reform stalemate will tip over into overwhelming support. The recent town hall meetings failed because they were starting a debate without giving digestible information to the public. TV and radio addresses appear top-down, against the very spirit of his campaign and presidency. And internet podcasts and speech transcripts are for the few with excellent bandwidth.
Obama ought to have been holding grassroots meeting, and no-holds barred conversations with community activists on community radio programs. He should have been holding rallies and using his grassroots network to get his healthcare proposal out to the public. Had he led the healthcare debate on "Main Street" as opposed to from Capitol Hill, a comprehensive healthcare reform bill, one including the public option, would have passed by now.
There are vast differences between Obama and Chavez. Obama has to steer a limping empire onto safer ground, whereas for Chavez the U.S. is part of the problem. Obama's leadership style is quiet whereas Chavez's is noisy. Still, Obama can take one lesson from Chavez: A leader elected on a platform of change has to be in constant conversation with the people if they are to believe in that change.
Yes, this is an especially busy time for the U.S. president, given domestic and international problems. So he cannot readily be available to rally the people whenever he wants to pass a piece of legislation.
But like any other people-power president, he has no choice. To bring about what he himself called fundamental change, Obama will have to seek and then use popular support as a battering ram.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Nairobi Heat and Hurling Words at Consciousness, and is a columnist for The BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.
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