My inner-reptile self hungers for revenge, for retribution. It craves harsh justice for those who have flagrantly and repeatedly ignored the law and trashed cherished Constitutional principles. It wants to see prison doors closing on those who committed us to illegal wars, destroyed our reputation abroad, repeatedly violated basic human rights, and fostered an era of greed that left our economy in shambles.
My inner-liberal self (which has proudly stood firm throughout the conservative era) yearns to replace the right-wing ideology of the last eight years with an equally unyielding doctrine from the left. It wants all cabinet appointments to be subjected to a progressive litmus test, and hopes that the new Democratic majority runs roughshod over the Republican minority. It demands total and immediate change.
But my better self, my granddaddy self, trumps these base urges. This better self believes that we are on the cusp of a transformed nation, one in which justice is defined as equality, and peace is more than the absence of violence. It yearns for the founding “idea” of America to once again become the real America. My better self envisions a new political ethic that restores our nation as a beacon of hope for people at home and abroad, bringing profound change in what we do and how we do it.
A profound and lasting change, however, is not easy. It requires more than filling an administration with political true believers, those who see government solely as a vehicle for carrying their narrow agenda and for whom ideology rather than competence is primary. An enduring transformation that can survive the constantly shifting sands of American politics must be built on the solid ground of common consent and implemented by competent leaders.
A key word in the foregoing paragraph is “competence”. The outgoing Bush administration put people in key roles who had very little experience in leading complex bureaucracies or in working with diverse constituencies. Their strengths began and ended with ideological purity and blind loyalty. Brownie, Alberto, Harriet, and a myriad of cabinet and sub-cabinet officials are prime examples of what can happen when the desire for political change is not combined with the competence and experience needed to make it durable and lasting. As a result, a Republican governing philosophy that has dominated our nation since the days of Ronald Reagan was soundly rejected in the last election.
The change that President-elect Obama has long advocated includes a new governing philosophy, an inclusive style of leadership and a progressive programmatic focus. It is a change in what we do and how we do it, domestically and internationally. But this change will be nothing more than speeches and slogans if the president doesn’t surround himself with people who can make it real and durable. I am, therefore, not concerned about what others label the “recycling” of people from the Clinton administration and Capitol Hill; rather, I’m heartened and encouraged by the direction the transition is moving in.
Those who are being proposed to take major jobs in the Obama administration are people who share his vision, and who have the experience to turn that vision into concrete reality. They understand the importance of building a grass-roots consensus about new direction instead of mandating it. They know how to turn the consensus into legislation, carry it through the landmines of legislative process, and then work with federal agencies, states and interest groups to bring it to fruition.
The conditions that President Obama will inherit are difficult: falling markets and rising unemployment, a looming recession and a crisis of confidence among the American people. Everything from our health care and education systems to our reputation abroad and our infrastructure at home is in desperate need of repair. But I agree with John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, who said in a similar time that “We are faced with unlimited opportunities disguised as insoluble problems”.
Our new president is a rare combination of pragmatist and visionary. He knows that we must deal with the urgent problems of today, but that it is equally important for us to keep our eyes set on the infinite possibilities of a new future.
What my better self expects of the Obama administration is that it will give us clear, open and well-articulated policies and programs; that it will enlist us in the work to create a new future; that it will have the courage to risk occasional failure by acting boldly; that it will be willing to invite those on the other side to be partners; and that it will always be honest with the American people. From such an agenda trust is born, and with the trust of the people we can (to paraphrase President-elect Obama) rekindle our commitment to the continuing perfection of our nation.