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Published: Sunday, 3/7/2010

Presidents and their pep talks

HAD John McCain been elected president and had a general malaise settled on American politics, you might have imagined picking up a newspaper such as the Financial Times and seeing a headline like this: "America Needs a Pep Talk."

Then you might have wondered how things would have been different had Barack Obama, who in his 2008 campaign specialized in the pep talk, prevailed in the presidential election. The country, you might have thought, would have been in a far better humor had the Great Communicator, 21st-century version, won the White House and had a chance to set the mood.

But wait - Mr. Obama did win the election, and still we're in a funk. We haven't had one of those great Obama moments in months, the kind that mixes symbolism and substance and lifts the whole country, making it want to believe again and making it safe to hope again.

This is not a reverie for speeches long past nor a plea for a rerun of the 2008 election. We'll have the 2012 election soon enough. If you peeked into what was happening at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee convention and saw Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Gov. Mitt Romney, and former Sen. Rick Santorum in full stump mode, you could be forgiven for thinking we're in campaign season already.

This is, instead, a time to wonder whether Mr. Obama and his new-age, multiracial coalition represent a trend - or a political aberration.

The case for the trend theory is well-established. Every third of a century or so comes a generational and political makeover that transforms the nation and its civic life. The Republicans won seven of 10 presidential elections between 1968 and 2004, and so now it is the Democrats' turn to dominate things, just as they had for seven of nine elections between 1932 and 1964.

It's a neat theory, with an inherent physics and an inherent fairness. But if we know one thing, it is that the past does not prescribe the future and maybe things in the future aren't going to be governed by patterns set in the past. And maybe what we think is a pattern is instead an aberration.

A lot of smart people, for example, thought the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, ending a period between 1952 and 1972 in which the Republicans won four out of six elections, signaled the end of something (moderate Republican rule) and the beginning of something else (southern-fried moderate Democratic rule).

Those people included the brilliant historian Eugene Genovese, who explained this view flawlessly and unassailably to a lot of us graduate students who met with him the night after the election. He didn't see that the Carter election was but an aberration in something important and something southern - but not the important southern trend he thought he was observing. Instead, it was an aberration in 36 years of Republican domination of the White House that was a result of GOP domination of the South. (Bill Clinton would provide another one in 1992 and 1996.)

One thing we know is not an aberration: the Obama campaign's deft use of the Internet and social media to mobilize people unaccustomed to participating in politics and to create a community of voters that didn't exist before. We likely will look back on 2008 as the time when a political rally was transformed from something people went to and became something people logged onto. What changed was significant: the way politics is organized, the way politics is financed, the way community is defined, and the way interests are mobilized.

That's four revolutions in one election, a pretty important achievement. But we're left wondering whether the result marks a new Democratic dominance. Perhaps, but we won't know the answer for a few decades, and even then we might not be sure.

Maybe the great transformation in 2008 wasn't from Republican to Democrat but from traditional interest-group politics to a new form of interests and community, located not at the county courthouse but on the computer and (in 2012, almost certainly) in mobile devices only now coming on the market.

That said, presidents will still have to propose budgets and legislation, negotiate foreign challenges, work with balky Congresses, nominate Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members, and do the mundane business of government. (And speaking of balky Congresses, it wasn't until recently that Mr. Obama produced a health-care proposal of his own.) There likely will be a left and a right, and competence, though perhaps defined differently, will still matter.

So will the important question of whether Americans want a government that is big or one that is small. In the days of Calvin Coolidge, within the life

span of some Americans still among us, the average American's encounter with the government was confined to the daily visit of the representative of the United States Post Office. (Indeed, Coolidge mentioned the Post Office in his 1925 State of the Union Address.) In Mr. Obama's America, as in George W. Bush's America, the Post Office is a rapidly declining cultural influence, and the government's role extends to the banks and multiple other arenas of life.

Where does that leave Mr. Obama? He has the bully pulpit of the presidency. While the prevailing presidential metaphor may have gone from hand on the tiller to hand on the mouse, Mr. Obama presides in an age where some of the old forms still exist, and it is in his hands, or fingers, to determine his success or failure.

The President - any president - is not an unwilling actor in a drama, or a trend, set out in advance. And though his opponents may seem well organized and well disciplined, they are probably no better organized and disciplined than the foes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, even George W. Bush.

The presidency remains a resiliently human institution, and the country, in times hard and easy, always needs a pep talk. Those aren't trends, but truths.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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