The Wisdom Of Obama's Crowd

Commentary

The inauguration of Barack Obama, the man, was the story and the history.

But it was the crowd, packed from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, that was the news. It is unlikely that so many Americans have ever assembled in one place for one moment.

But will it be more than a moment? Will something about that crowd — that crammed, patient, shivering symbol of this new episode in our history — endure in a way that shapes the Obama administration, the collective mood of the nation and contributes to solving American problems?

My former boss at CBS News, Bob Schieffer, says yes it will. "I think Washington will take note of this crowd," Schieffer said toward the end of the day. "And when Washington politicians see this many people who come here because they wish this man [Obama] well, that in itself is a message. And I think that will add to the bipartisan air here."

Politicians know how to read polls, so you would think they know how to read crowds, too. Schieffer mused that perhaps cooperation and accomplishment would even become chic in Washington: red/blue out; purple in.

I suspect the Obama administration will not just leave this to chance and try to surf the zeitgeist.

The Obama campaign harnessed the wisdom and passion — and the pocketbook — of the crowd as no other campaign has. They knew a lot when they started and learned a lot more. They understand the power of new technology and the ways people, especially young people, use it. They know how to convert enthusiasm and interest into actions — small donations, volunteering to send e-mails around or handing out leaflets. They will most likely use this as a tool of governing as well as campaigning.

But this is the stuff of political tactics. It's limited. If Obama had not been such a skilled candidate, with perfect political pitch and a shrewd eye for talent, and if he had not been so well-matched for the times, his YouTubing, Twittering and Facebooking would have gone the way of Howard Dean.

Similarly, the assessment that bipartisanship may now be the smart and self-interested path is likely to be short-lived. Soon enough, officeholders and office seekers will be looking at the next election and the cash, negative ads and voting records it will take to win. And the news media are impervious to the political mood of the country and will continue to do what they know best — inflate petty disputes, book argumentative guests and relentlessly scratch the surface.

All these challenges, I believe, don't mean that the power of the crowd will inexorably wane. It will just act more slowly than we are used to noticing in these days of national attention deficit disorder.

The grittiest sands in the gears of government for the past 30 years have been the consistent and unwavering lack of trust and confidence that the American voter has had for government and governors. That is why elections have been so close and government so divided between the parties. Voters haven't cared to entrust either side with power.

The massive crowd on the National Mall on Inauguration Day, and the millions and millions who were there in spirit, seem to me to be saying, "Lead with class and we'll watch your back."

That will take time to play out. It will be manifest in the 2010 midterm elections; if the government is earning back real trust, incumbents and moderates will probably do well and Democrats will probably pick up a few seats. If Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are struck by lousy ratings, there is hope. If lobbyists have to work longer hours for fewer results, we may be on the right track. If different sorts of people run for public office, the crowd will have spoken.

In one of my favorite lines from his inaugural address, Obama said, "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." Our expectations as voters, citizens and consumers in recent years have become childish, as has the behavior of our leadership; that is so fitting of a generation happy to call itself the baby boom.

Perhaps now the crowd is ready to grow up.

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