Even before the buzz of Barack Obama's historic victory has worn off, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said "A new President must govern from the middle." The lessons of history and the election of our first African American President say: that's nonsense.
Speaker Pelosi is confusing the need for skillful leadership, with the misguided compulsion to govern from the middle--a mistake which Democrats must finally abandon if they are to rise to the challenges that confront America. Middle of the road politics is part of the failed policies of the past, not the bright new future Americans have helped to create with the election of Barack Obama.
In his victory speech to young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled, he said, "The Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress," demonstrating that he understands leadership that unites, but does not diminish our combined power.
Barack Obama said, "[T]o those Americans whose support I have yet to earn--I may not have won your vote--but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too," showing humility without capitulation.
He said, "This is our moment. This is our time--to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can."
That's not about the tired politics of surrender; it's about the audacity of hope. President-elect Obama gets the distinction between middle-of-the-road politics, which takes us all down to the lowest common denominator, and leadership that advances everyone, helping us to soar decisively in the direction of the progressive change that Americans seek.
The great American Presidents--Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt--all knew the difference. Whether you agreed with them or not, the reason that they were perceived by history to be great is because they led the nation through tough times with an ideology and dedication to principles that they were able to communicate effectively, not because they governed from the middle.
Abraham Lincoln did not lead us through the Civil War to the end of Slavery from the middle of the road. Franklin Roosevelt took principled positions with progressive policies to help us, to help ourselves through the Great Depression. Even Ronald Reagan, whose policies I staunchly opposed, led us decisively from the right. Proud Presidential legacies stem in no small part from major policy change, which simply does not happen in the middle of the road.
William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter, have been flattened by history, like the proverbial dead skunk, because they did not understand how history and the voters frown on middle-of-the-roaders.
Presidential Historian Allan Lichtman said, "Great Presidents don't move to the middle, they bring the middle to them in order to achieve fundamental change."
The American people know the difference between concession politics and decisive leadership for positive change. The difference is what turned Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida from red to blue. The difference is why 20,000 people abandoned sleep and hit the streets and the phones for Obama for 2 years and especially in the last 48 hours of the campaign. It's the reason why, in Winchester, Virginia and small towns around the country, on the Sunday before the election the Obama campaign offices were pulsing with energy, while the McCain headquarters were dark, cold, empty and locked-down. It's the reason why Barack Obama won in a landslide.
Barack Obama must listen and lead. He should be the antithesis of the heavy-handed, partisan bullying that is the hallmark of the George W. Bush Administration and lead with open, democratic, principled and reasoned positions which spring from broad-based, deep knowledge and progressive politics. That's decidedly different from governing from the middle--which suggests concession and never creates change.
Barack Obama proved he understands that we didn't elect him just to win an election for the Democrats or to walk down some middle road, when he said, "[W]e know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime–-two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century...There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake...and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair."
This is our victory, indeed. Let it not be underestimated, watered-down or dealt away. Let's do as our new leader suggest and dispense with cynicism, fear and doubt about what we can achieve, put our hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.Karyn is a political scientist, grassroots organizer and writer. She is the founder and chair of a new organization called hottpac.org, working to elect candidates to reverse global warming. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. © Karyn Strickler, 2008.