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What Does Change Mean?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 5, 2008

In the 2008 presidential campaign, change is the operative theme and no candidate seems to better epitomize this than Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Obama’s compelling personal narrative and soaring rhetoric to bring people of all races together has convinced many people that “Yes, We Can.”

But the question remains “do what?” Up to this point, Senator Obama has been vague about his definition of change which allows voters to read into it what they believe. However, as he fleshes out his message of change, he risks alienating voters whose definition of change differs. This potentially undermines his appeal, makes governing more difficult if he wins, and increases public cynicism.

So what does change mean? There are several possibilities. First, change means no more George W. Bush. And this the Constitution requires next January. What then? Obama cannot build an enduring governing coalition based solely on opposition to Bush. Instead, enduring coalitions are built on positive visions – which Obama has – backed up by popular, concrete policies – which he lacks so far. Remember, Ronald Reagan built a governing majority based on a vision of “Morning in America” backed by specific policies of tax cuts, more defense spending, and less government regulation.

Second, change means changing the policy direction of the country. This is what many Democrats and liberals hope change means. They see a rejection of Bush as a rejection of everything that Bush and Republicans stand for and acceptance of Obama’s agenda of higher taxes, reducing global warming, universal health care, a phased withdrawal from Iraq, fair trade, increased government regulation of business, and over $800 billion in new government spending over four years. Yet, this interpretation is problematic. First, only about 25% of the nation self-identifies as liberal which indicates weak support for the liberal agenda.

Second, voters can distinguish between personality and policy. Thus, voters may disapprove of Bush as stubborn, arrogant, and/or a poor leader. Yet, they still support the “surge” in Iraq, the war on terror, tax cuts, personal accounts for Social Security, etc.

Third, voters can support a change in policy direction, but not support a move in the liberal direction. Many conservatives complain that Bush is not a conservative because of his utopian foreign policy, fiscally irresponsible spending, and violations of individual rights and privacy. They see change as a more pragmatic foreign policy, smaller government, and less intrusive government as opposed to Obama’s likely policies.

Moreover, moderates who oppose conservative policies are just as likely to oppose liberal policies which are the likely result of a Senator who the nonpartisan National Journal ranked as the tenth most liberal Senator in 2005-2006. Third, change means competence after inadequate post-war planning in Iraq, the poor response to Hurricane Katrina, and failure to enact Social Security or immigration reform. Certainly, changing personnel can lead to better planning and decision making. However, our separated power system makes effective leadership difficult and bureaucratic rules prevent rapid government responses. What’s more globalization requires change while at the same time reducing the impact of government policy.

Fourth, change means more bipartisanship in Washington, D.C. Voters simply want politicians to work together to solve our problems. Obama echoes this concern by promising to work with Republicans to find common ground. In fact, in many speeches he proclaims that we are not red America or blue America but one United States of America.

Yet, Obama’s experience does not support his rhetoric. Obama’s experience in bipartisanship focuses on issues that are nonpartisan such as earmark reform, ethics, Darfur, and reducing loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. On partisan issues such as Iraq, taxes, military tribunals, warrantless wiretapping, homosexual rights, universal health care, abortion, Social Security and Medicare reform, he has reflexively supported the liberal position and failed to reach out to Republicans. This leads one to ask whether Obama is truly willing to compromise with Republicans to create a bipartisanship consensus, or whether bipartisanship to Obama means agreeing to his agenda and policies.

Regardless, because of who he is and what he represents, an Obama victory in November will give him a window of opportunity to reshape American politics. He will be helped by the anticipated increased congressional Democratic majorities, especially if Democrats gain or approach 60 Senate seats. If Democrats become divided and Obama cannot work with Republicans though, the change he seeks will be more rhetorical than transformational. Then he will end up like another candidate who promised to be a “uniter and not a divider.”

Article orginally appeared in The Jackson Sun on February 29, 2008