America seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country we want to be. The current presidential election may provide an answer.
Political campaigns don’t ignite grassroots movements for change, but politicians, by their rhetoric and actions, can encourage or discourage people from joining crusades for social justice. They can give voice and lend credibility to people working for a better society.
In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton and some of her supporters have taken to criticizing Barack Obama for his charisma, his inspiring speeches and his campaign’s boisterous rallies. “There’s a big difference between us–speeches versus solutions,” Clinton said February 14 in Ohio. “Talk versus action. You know, some people may think words are change. But you and I know better. Words are cheap.”
The Clintonites say that Obama is peddling “false hopes.” They suggest that the fervor of the crowds at his rallies is somehow “creepy,” as though his followers are like a herd of sheep who would follow Obama off a cliff.
But Obama is clearly touching a nerve in America’s body politic–a pent-up idealism that seeks not utopia but simply a more decent society. Obama can recite his list of policy prescriptions as well as, perhaps even better than, most politicians. But he also views this campaign as an opportunity to praise and promote the organizers and activists on the front lines of grassroots movements and to explain what it will take to bring about change. A onetime organizer himself, Obama knows that, if elected, his ability to reform healthcare, improve labor laws, tackle global warming and restore job security and living wages will depend, in large measure, on whether he can use his bully pulpit to mobilize public opinion and encourage Americans to battle powerful corporate interests and members of Congress who resist change.
Talking about the need to forge a new energy policy during a speech in Milwaukee on Saturday, Obama explained, “I know how hard it will be to bring about change. Exxon Mobil made $11 billion this past quarter. They don’t want to give up their profits easily.”
The dictionary defines “encourage” as “give hope to”–and that’s an important role for a public official, including a President. In his 2002 book, A History of Hope: When Americans Have Dared to Dream of a Better Future, New York University historian James Fraser examined the nation’s history from the bottom up. He showed how ordinary people have achieved extraordinary things by mobilizing movements for change. But it is also true that at critical moments, a few Presidents–including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson–embraced these movements and helped propel them forward.
Obama, who called his recent book The Audacity of Hope, understands this history. In his speech in Milwaukee, he challenged Clinton and others who accuse him of being what he termed a “hope-monger.” His opponents, Obama said, think that “if you talk about hope, you must not have a clear view of reality.”