Commentary: Obama alone won't change things

Barack Obama speaks Monday to a capacity crowd in Independence, Mo.
Barack Obama speaks Monday to a capacity crowd in Independence, Mo. David Eulitt / Kansas City Star / MCT

Barack Obama was surrounded by ghosts election night.

To his right were presidents who had defined their times: Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan.

To his left were some all but forgotten leaders, including - I think - Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison and Gerald Ford.

I rubbed my eyes, and mercifully, they all vanished.

But as a child of these quick, fast, in-a-hurry times, I began to wonder which group the president-elect might join when he leaves office four or eight years hence?

The question was intriguing because of Obama's paradoxical relationship with the past. Even as his campaign sought to make history, it vowed to obliterate it.

His victory was built on a promise to turn the page on the last eight years and the larger hope that we have finally moved beyond our ugly racial past.

History, however, is more powerful than any individual, no matter how gifted and persuasive. It can't be voted or wished away.

Solving our economic and foreign policy challenges, much less erasing the deeply entrenched problems born of slavery and Jim Crow, will require much than one person's vision.

Yes, we can transcend the past - but only if we understand it. History is not just a series of mistakes the forgetful are condemned to repeat. It is also a story of possibility that enables those who remember it to see how they might reshape their nation and themselves.

The American saga tells us that Obama cannot make himself a great president, but we the people can make his presidency great if we allow him to give flight to our better angels.

Rewind the tape to 1828 and Andrew Jackson's election. Our first rags-to-riches president - and our first "ethnic" leader, as he was not English but Scotch-Irish - Jackson is credited with ushering in the age of the common man.

But his legislative accomplishments were dwarfed by the tremendous energy he inspired in others. "We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform," Ralph Waldo Emerson observed of the period marked by dramatic strides in commerce, education and the arts.

The religious impulse was particularly strong during this period known as the second Great Awakening, when Americans tried to perfect themselves and the world around them through their faith. Jackson represented the sense of hope and possibility that the people turned into action.

Seven decades later, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) embodied the spirit of public policy reform known as the Progressive Era. For all his trust-busting brio, the great lasting work was done by activists around the nation, such as Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette, who turned his state into a laboratory of reform, and muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair, whose expose of the meatpacking industry, "The Jungle," led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.

Tragically, his presidency was also marked by the rise of repressive Jim Crow laws across the South, a legacy willfully ignored by his admirers. Without discounting that, TR was the right person at the right time, both an agent of change and a symbol of dynamism who spurred a whoosh of creativity. When the people looked at him, they saw their own reflection, and it galvanized them.

TR's nephew, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), had an even greater effect by offering an economically distressed nation a New Deal that provided more hope than effective relief. No one embodied the inspirational role of the presidency more than the man Obama is often compared with, John F. Kennedy (1961-63).

Like Obama, Kennedy's election was seen as a new day. "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," the youthful president proclaimed in his inaugural address.

Speak with almost anyone who was a young Democrat then and they'll tell you how JFK opened up a world of possibilities for them. In truth, JFK was more conservative than the liberal energies he excited.

He probably wouldn't have approved of many of the social and political forces that shaped the 1960s. Those who judge his presidency by his thin record of accomplishment miss the point. His greatest legacy was shaped by millions of Americans who felt emboldened by him to effect change.

The Constitution grants the president many powers, but they pale in comparison with the creativity of the American people that gifted leaders have unleashed. For all of his legislative and foreign policy triumphs, Ronald Reagan's (1981-89) greatest achievement was restoring a sense of optimism to a sullen nation.

Obama is such a commanding figure that it is tempting now to sit back and wait for him to work his magic. History shows that he cannot do it alone. He needs us at least as much as we need him. He signaled this in his victory speech Tuesday when he called for a "new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice."

Great leaders engender greatness in others. As they introduce powerful ideas to the realms of public and foreign policy, they inspire others to reshape the worlds of commerce, culture and the arts. Our goal is not just to make a better government, but a better nation.

Can we do it? History provides a resounding answer: Yes we can.


J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Readers may send him e-mail at peder.zane@newsobserver.com.