Change Begins With Us

After the initial euphoria of Barack Obama’s big win began to die down, after all the polls were discussed and the results were analyzed, the pundits all seemed to speak with one unified voice for a moment. Their message was simply “Now the hard work of governing begins,” as if equating the last 20 months of campaigning to nothing more than a beauty contest that had nothing to do with the work of governing. Perhaps this was the media’s response because the media had spent so much time covering the election as if it were a beauty pageant, not a vital national dialogue.

Regardless, as the media spotlight shifted away from horse-race politics and campaign gossip and began exploring what an Obama administration means for the future of America, a new narrative emerged. In the two weeks since the election the media – both mainstream and bloggers – have been captivated by Obama’s every move. News photographers follow him like paparazzi as he drops his daughters off at school, correspondents trace politicians’ flights in and out of Chicago and speculate on their possible roles in his administration, pundits analyze his every word and choice as if by tracking every move he makes we will begin to understand what our future looks like.

This nearly obsessive focus on the nuances and details of the president-elect since election day has distracted us as a nation from another vital conversation we need to be having. In addition to asking what Obama will do, we need to ask ourselves what will we do.

Indeed, the pinnacle of Obama’s election night speech called us to answer this very question. What will we do? The entire last half of his speech called on America to come together in new ways, to look to the future, and to ask ourselves what change we want to see, and what we are willing to do to make that change happen.

From the speech:

“What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

“So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

[…]

“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

“This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.”

For me, this part of Obama’s speech was unlike anything I have heard from a politician in my years as a voter. This, to me, was as important, as inspired, and as powerful as Kennedy’s oft-quoted “Ask not what your country can do for you.” This part of Obama’s speech was not just a call to action, but a call to imagination. And Obama understands that the challenges we face are too big to leave to the imagination of one man or one woman. Thus he calls on us to come together as one nation and one people, to serve and sacrifice, to look beyond our time and beyond ourselves, and recapture the spirit of America, the spirit that thrives in imagination, in our ability to work together to make dreams into reality.

However, rarely an introspective bunch, the media has almost entirely ignored this call to our national imagination. Where the media could take this unique moment in time to reimagine its own role, to set its bottom line aside and serve as true facilitators of this national conversation, instead we are left with a play by play of Obama’s day to day activities. Instead, we are left with news that is not about our future, but instead little more than a recounting of our immediate past. We get “Here’s what just happened” instead of “Here is what’s coming.” We get “Here is what our leaders are saying” instead of “Here is what Americans are saying.”

And in their narrow focus on Barack Obama, and their recounting of his every move, the media perpetuates just the exact kind of leadership that Obama is seeking to undermine. As was evidenced by his campaign, and crystalized in his election night speech, Obama wants to lead with the people, not lead the people. In his election night speech he tried to map out the role each of us, in our home, our schools, our jobs and our communities, can play in making the change we need. The media’s neglect of this point at this juncture in America’s history is on par with George Bush’s post-9/11 advice to the American people. When a country was inspired to serve, he suggested we shop. Now, at a time when the nation is hungry for change, the media gives us more of the same.

Neglecting this part of Obama’s speech, and this important leadership style, is not only bad for America, it is bad for media as well. As more and more people are flocking towards new media outlets for their news, old media giants are missing yet another opportunity to play a central role in the important national dialogue about the future of our country. While the networks and newspapers hypothesize about Obama’s cabinet, people across the country are streaming to the web looking for connection, looking for conversation. Look for example at the website of the president-elect (Change.gov) where citizens can log on and weigh in on the issues they care about, discuss ideas for change, and imagine new ways to get there.

But a few websites and blogs are not enough. We need to lift up Obama’s call to imagination and carry it into our communities. Because, Barack Obama is not the change we want to see, but he is one of our best hopes of making that change together. As he said, this moment “is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” I am disappointed to see how quickly the American media has slipped back to “the way things were.” But I am hopeful that the voices of millions of Americans can drown out the old habits of a few big media giants.

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