Can Obama really bring about "change"?

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At the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines last November, an annual ritual of backslapping and speechifying that takes on added significance in the months before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates were trying out their slogans. Hillary Clinton went with "Turn Up the Heat" (meaning, she explained, let's attack the Republicans and not each other, a vow she inevitably could not keep). Barack Obama was looking for some way to sharpen the distinction with Clinton and the other candidates. He settled on the word "change." "From my perspective, change was more than just changing parties in the White House," he reflected last week to a NEWSWEEK reporter, as he flew through the night from Omaha to Seattle for the next round of primaries. "What ailed the country went deeper than that. The line in my speech was about not just change as a slogan, but change we can believe in. At that point, we started putting it on our signs."

Many voters did believe in Obama's message, enough to propel him into a dead heat with Clinton on Super Tuesday. People of all kinds, but especially the young and upwardly mobile and African-Americans, have thronged to rallies. Others, however, have been unmoved. Some, particularly older, white, women voters—the kind who turn out in large numbers in Democratic primaries—look at Obama and see someone who appears vaguely alien. They are less interested in ringing calls for change than specific promises to provide health care or child care. Some are just plain skeptical that Obama can deliver change.

They know that presidential candidates have been promising to change the nation's capital as long as they can remember. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower swept to power promising to clean up the mess created by Harry Truman. Eight years later, in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination, John F. Kennedy made essentially the same promise to transform Eisenhower's Washington. "Dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America," he said. "It's time for a change." Jimmy Carter promised to sweep Washington clean after Nixon-Ford; Ronald Reagan promised to fix things after Jimmy Carter … and so it has gone in almost every election cycle before and since.

Voters are almost invariably disappointed by candidates promising to straighten out the mess in Washington. Presidents come and go; lobbyists and special-interest groups, it seems, are forever. That doesn't mean, of course, that the presidency is somehow inconsequential or that change does not happen. It's just that the change rarely has much to do with campaign promises, and everything to do with unexpected events, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.

Presidents can bring great symbolic and tonal changes. Just as JFK brought an aura of youth and vigor to Washington, Obama, by virtue of his skin color if nothing else, will be seen around the world as something new and different from the government of George W. Bush. Occasionally, a president such as Ronald Reagan can change the governing paradigm, from liberal to conservative or back again. But the success of most presidencies depends far less on promises and rhetoric than the way presidents deal with surprises. A look at Obama's record shows that he is far more an incrementalist than a bold change agent. Hillary Clinton scoffs at Obama as weak and untried, and asserts that only she has the experience to bring about real change. Yet her record suggests that she has been rattled by change in the past, and it remains unclear whether she really learned from experience. ("She is a very practical person," says Clinton's policy director Neera Tanden. "Get done what you can. If she's completely lost a battle, then she goes at a problem a different way.")

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