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.
"Inspiring speeches are the critical first step in bringing about change because you have to get people motivated," says Robert McElvaine, a presidential historian at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. "But, of course, you then need to get things through Congress."
This is where Clinton supporters say their candidate's strength lies. On this point, political analysts and the public give her the advantage. The March CNN/Opinion Research poll found that Clinton beat Obama 61 percent to 40 percent on who "has the right experience to be President of the United States." She plays up her experience in one of her recent campaign ads in Pennsylvania, which holds a crucial primary April 22. The ad opens with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter saying: "I know. You want to know why I'm supporting Hillary. Easy. She gets it, and she gets the job done." Mayor Nutter continues by saying that's what's really needed in Washington right now.
"Clinton's real problem is that she has experience, but she doesn't really have strong grass-roots support the way Obama does," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "If you're a president wanting serious change, you have to have strong grass-roots support."
Of the three '08 contenders, McCain scores highest in many public opinion polls on the question of experience. In the mid-March CNN/Opinion Research poll, he topped both Clinton and Obama on who has the "right experience" to be president with 68 percent.
Some analysts note, too, that McCain has been the most articulate of the three in giving details on how he would change Washington.
However, that can be a double-edged sword. "McCain is in fact a lot more specific than either of the Democrats in that way, at least if you define change as earmarks, campaign legislation and so forth," says Mr. Hess. "That's why there are those in his party who are less than enthusiastic that he's going to be the nominee."
Of the three leading candidates, Obama is the most likely to fulfill the key requirements for change, according to Professors McElvaine and West and other political scientists. The reasons: He has a unique status as an outsider who also has Washington experience and he is someone who can inspire people.
"He's the one who's really aroused the grass-roots activists in the same way that Reagan energized conservatives 30 years ago," says West. "Reagan then used that conservative support to push the policy agenda."
But other political analysts are skeptical, not just of Obama, but of the whole idea of change.
"With all due respect, if Obama does become president, he'll leave Washington more or less the way he found it," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "There are reasons why Washington works the way it does; there are reasons the institutions of government have become entrenched the way they have. It's just not possible to move in and change human nature or reality the way presidents think they can."