"Something Is Happening" – Obama’s Movement for Change

Just a few months ago, Hillary Clinton was seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee. She has run a strong campaign, and been an impressive candidate; but much has changed in a short time.

Instead of finding a clear path to the White House, Clinton has run into the rather extraordinary movement set in motion by Barack Obama. This has confounded not only the Clintons, but many pundits and politicos as well.

In reflecting on all of this, I am reminded of a haunting line in one of Bob Dylan’s more memorable songs from the 1960s ("Ballad of a Thin Man"). It was written in the midst of the upheavals of that period, as the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the just-dawning cultural revolution, were converging into a social movement.

The transformations occurring went beyond legislation and politics. Reacting to the "grayness" of the period and the stultifying fears of the Cold War, the movement boldly rejected accepted social norms and awakened, especially among the young, a new idealism full of hope.

This was unsettling to those who remained outside the dynamic process, unable to grasp its transformative power. It was to this bewilderment that Dylan addressed his memorable taunt: "Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?"

Which brings me back to Barack Obama.

When I first wrote about the Obama phenomenon a few months back, I noted that his appeal was characterized by a rejection of cynicism and a call to idealism ("speaking to the angels of our better natures"). What is clear now, months later, is that the threads of Obama’s appeal and inspiration, woven together, spring from a powerful philosophy of change that resonates across generational lines. It is a philosophy of redemptive self-empowerment that calls for collective action to recognize, address and resolve long-standing social problems – in Obama’s words, "to heal the nation."

For Obama, change will not come from the top-down. Winning an election, by itself, is not enough, since it only provides leadership with a fraction of the leverage needed to make fundamental change. Institutional roadblocks, such as partisan gridlock and the stubborn self-interest of entrenched lobbies and interest groups, are not affected by a mere change at the top.

Profound transformative change, like that ushered in by the New Deal or created by the vision of the New Frontier/Great Society, can only come about because of the powerful demands of mass social movements that both pressure for change and create the conditions for its realization. When Barack Obama says, "We have been waiting for so long for the time when we could finally expect more from our politics, when we could give more of ourselves and feel truly invested in something bigger than a candidate or cause. This is it: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the ones that we seek" – he is both empowering his supporters, and challenging them to become the instruments of radical transformation. And it has worked, at least so far.

Alienated by the failures and crass cynicism of the Bush Administration, and the partisan triangulation of the 1990s, many have felt compelled to act after hearing Obama’s call for change. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have been organized, either working directly in the campaign or making calls on its behalf. Well over $100 million has been raised from over 700,000 donors. (In just seventy-two hours last week, $7.5 million dollars were raised from 40,000 donors.)

I’ve traveled to other cities to see the impact this movement has had on real people. I have been struck by vignettes which, for me, tell the story so well. There was, for example, a fourteen year-old Pakistani girl in New York who handed me a letter, asking me to pass it on to Senator Obama. In the letter she referred to him as "the hero of my generation" and offered to volunteer in his campaign, describing it as "my campaign." Or the taxi driver here in Washington who told me that Obama makes him believe, "for the second time, that the promise of America is real" (the first time being when arrived here fifteen years ago). He told me that he is organizing other cab drivers to work in the campaign on election day.

The momentum that Obama has recorded is measurable, and appears to be growing. Just two and a half months ago his campaign was viewed with skepticism, and dismissed. Even two weeks ago, after setbacks in New Hampshire and Nevada, the conventional wisdom was that his momentum had been stopped. He was still 20 percentage points down in national polling. Now he is dead even with Senator Clinton, both in polling numbers and in delegates amassed. "Something is happening."

There are two additional observations to be made.

First, ignoring the reality of this still-emerging movement comes with a risk to Democrats. Obama was right when he observed at a press conference last week that, should he win, Clinton’s voters would support him; but should she win, his voters would not necessarily support her. The movement he has unleashed is not focused on just winning. That is too limited and too cynical a goal for his supporters. They do not seek to power for its own sake, they seek to bring about fundamental change.

Secondly, it is important to note that while Obama has been the inspiration that launched this movement, it will have the power to drive him. Expectations for change, once created, cannot easily be let down.