It’s a requirement of electoral politics that candidates must present themselves as all things to all people. What looks like hypocrisy is actually just common sense: The more precisely you define yourself, the more potential voters you drive away. The smart politician campaigns by promising people what they want but then governs by giving them what they need and trusting them to know the difference.
Barack Obama seems to have understood this well when he campaigned on a promise of change, of giving us something different. He sensibly left us a lot of room to decide what that something different might be. A lot of Democrats seem to have assumed that he would change things back to the good old days of the New Deal. Baby boom liberals clearly expected him to follow their various laundry lists in the realm of gender, identity and perception. There were even some Republicans, it turns out, who thought he might change the Democratic Party into something that looked more Republican.
Now that the president-elect has begun unveiling his administration, some are disappointed, and understandably so. The team he has presented so far looks like a phone directory of Washington insiders: Clinton administration retreads, Beltway policy wonks and even Bush administration holdovers. That, it could fairly be said, is not change — it’s more of the same.
But in fact, what Obama seems to be setting in motion is precisely the sort of deep change that’s needed. It’s a change from incompetence to competence, from policy-making based on fantasy and rigid ideology to governance based on flexibility, pragmatism and honest engagement with reality.
Nowhere is the disappointment greater than in the antiwar movement. Many activists assumed that because Obama understood the folly of marching into Iraq, he would simply reverse course and march right out. Alas, that’s as unrealistic as the fantasy that got us into this mess. It would have been better if America hadn’t invaded Iraq, but we did, and the consequences were enormous. It does no good to shut our eyes and wish it weren’t so. In the adult world, you can’t make a mess and then just walk away.
The most important change President-elect Obama can give us is to create a government that knows what it’s doing. Thankfully, that seems to be what he’s got in mind.