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On Delivering the Change that We Believed In

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on change in Obama’s administration. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

Short of revolution in which blood is spilt and heads roll, change is a rare thing in the evolution of civilization. American presidents have tried to mimic change rhetorically – the New Freedom, the New Deal, the New Frontier, the New World Order – but the truth is the whole point of a democratic system of election is to allow for peaceful change, which is to say that elections are designed to preserve continuity amidst change, which is to say that in the end we value continuity more than we do change. And so President-elect Barack Obama has correctly intoned that the nation has only one president at a time, indicating his resistance to taking responsibility when he has no authority, while also making a subtler point that while the torch passes and the persons change, it is the torch that matters.

We are allowed to dream dreams of change in a campaign, but when government starts, the flights of rhetorical fancy and fantasy must end. So we really shouldn’t be surprised that President-Elect Obama’s first crop of nominations are all veterans from the last Democratic administration. Whereas the Republicans have built up a cadre of accomplished officials and advisors having won 7 out of the last 11 presidential elections, Obama has no such luxury. He needs knowledgeable people as well as experienced politicos to get any job done. His ends may be different, but Obama’s means will likely be strikingly similar to the men who have come before him. In every action since he was elected, Obama has proved Hillary Clinton right that you need experience to bring about change.

Campaigns may all be run on the message of change, but government is about continuity and Obama should not allow the symbolism of his campaign to interfere with the staffing of his administration. Nothing – short of revolution and a constitutional convention – starts on a clean slate. Washington is what it is, and he who presumes to be able to sweep in and replace the reality of sticky institutions and entrenched interests without the paradoxical aid of these institutions or interests has allowed the victory of an election to get to his head.

Having sounded the clarion call for change all year, the president-elects appears to be bracing for the trench-warfare ahead by surrounding himself with a team of capable rivals. Ours is a stubborn political system rigged against change – from horizontal to vertical centralization – that even united party control of government may not surmount. Individual by individual, interest by interest, institution by institution, nation by nation, President-elect Barack Obama will have to bring about change that we believed in.

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