'Change' campaigns: Can they deliver?
A president needs inspiring rhetoric, savvy, and a like-minded public.
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The 2008 season is no exception. Barack Obama wants to change partisan Washington to become more responsive to average Americans. Hillary Rodham Clinton vows to change "the failed policies and the wrong-headed priorities of this administration." Not to be outdone, John McCain pledges to change the capital's spendthrift ways.
Political analysts say it's rare for a president to usher in genuine change. The reasons: Constitutional constraints on the executive, the entrenched political culture on Capitol Hill, and the arcane bureaucracy.
But some presidents have succeeded in bringing in a new era. In the 20th century, historians cite Teddy Roosevelt, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. In studying their legacies, historians say three things are necessary for a president to make a significant impact on the status quo. First, the public must want change. Second, a president must have the rhetorical skills to lead and inspire. Finally, he or she must have the political skills to implement a vision in the sometimes moribund halls of Congress.
With more than 80 percent of Americans now telling pollsters they believe the country is on the wrong track, political analysts say the foundation is there for 2008 to become a truly transformative election. But historians note that it's not until a politician actually sits in the Oval Office and begins to govern that history and citizens can judge how effective the person is as an agent of change.
"The president is not a hapless giant, he does have to use his bully pulpit: He does have some tools," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But we can never know how skillfully a person will be at using them, until they are actually given those tools. That's a huge question mark."
In the heated Democratic primary, Senator Obama, from the start, has championed himself as the candidate of change. Senator Clinton, meanwhile, portrays herself as the more experienced candidate and better equipped to bring about change. Indeed, the two candidates' policy proposals aren't all that different. But polls have shown that Obama's change message is the one that's resonated. For example, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken in mid-March, 56 percent of Americans said Obama could "bring the kind of change the US needs," compared with 49 percent for Clinton and 39 percent for Senator McCain.
History has shown that calling for change is a crowd pleaser, especially when candidates can also lift people up with their words.
Here, political analysts give Obama the advantage. They point to the Illinois senator's most recent campaign ad in which he plays on the theme of inspiration: "One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city…." The ad goes on to say that a voice can change a state, and a nation, and a world. "Let's go change the world," Obama concludes. Then, the crowd cheers, while the words "For a nation changed, a world healed" appear on the screen.