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Brian Charles: Moving the margins back to center

Washington Journal: the Inauguration

Posted: January 12, 2009 8:36 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.

B.C. goes to D.C.: Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles' Washington Journal continues in The Signal and on Join him on his journey to our nation's capital for the historic inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Editor's note: Fifth in an exclusive series as Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles prepares to travel to Washington, D.C., to cover the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

"This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

There's no doubt where Barack Obama found those words on the night he crossed the magic delegate line in June 2008.

Obama's quasi-messianic rant targeted the disenfranchised among us. It wasn't the first time he dared to step out of the political boat and walk boldly on the water of the human spirit. But with an election behind us, and an inauguration approaching, Obama is trading in inspiration for political reality.

This reality is two wars and a floundering economy. It's a sitting president who is more proactive in his final two months in office than the 94 previous months.

The reality is that messianic figures never last long enough to be forced to deliver. The reality is that Obama can deliver everything short of capturing Osama bin Laden himself and turn the 21st century version of the Great Depression into a new gilded age, and he would still disappoint many Americans who expect miracles.

The reality is Obama needs to manage these expectations.

In a previous piece ("A new role model for people of all colors"), I spoke about one mother's frustration with residual racism she experienced in a restaurant and her cumulative frustration with America's oversized prison-industrial complex. Obama aimed his message at people like this woman. His campaign targeted and moved into action millions of people living at the margins of society. And he took campaign contributions from those millions of disaffected Americans. Now those Americans expect reciprocity.

But the problem with the margins on the left or the right, in all shades of America, is that the margins often don't jibe with the political realities of the day. To give people on the margins what they want means Obama would have to cash in political equity that no first-term president should have to give up so soon, unless re-election simply doesn't matter.

The margins have political power, and that means payback time for some. Obama says reciprocity politics are of the past, but political reality says otherwise.

What is the president-elect to do after the inauguration when those frustrated mothers start calling for retribution against a system they see as perversely unjust?

So far, Obama is governing from the center. His cabinet picks, which include a conspicuous number of Bill Clinton disciples, bears witness to that. The rumbling on both sides about whether this is "change" must be tempered by history. Clinton was successful because he didn't seek political retribution to the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush political legacy. That ignited dissent with the left wing, or the so-called "democratic wing" of the Democratic Party.

Clinton was seen by the both the far left and far right as nothing more than a guy who licked an index finger, held it aloft to monitor the political breeze and set sail in that direction. He rubber-stamped much of the economic policy pushed by President Reagan and the first Bush. Clinton's unique stamp was opening economic opportunities to minorities who make up the base of the Democratic Party. Expectations to roll back the Reagan-Bush legacy was high, but he dealt with it by appealing to the center and praying for the economy to pivot. And luckily for Clinton, the economy began to pivot prior to his inauguration.

But Obama has another hurdle - being first. Being the first black president with little prospects of another rising black star in either party sets the expectations exponentially higher for the new president. It will take more than a pivot in the economy for Obama to match expectations.

The new president needs to sell America on an agenda that moves the margins back to the center. He needs to convince the margins on both sides that a middle path is not just one of least resistance, but also one that benefits all involved. Good luck.


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