Once a symbol of "change," President Obama must now effect visceral change in the lives of working people or risk political failure.
One year into this administration, a President elected on a slogan of "change" is now faced with calls from every corner of the political landscape that he must change if he is to avoid total failure.
Irony can be so ironic.
Speaking about the public's expectations about Obama, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico described to the New York Times the difficult task the President must accomplish in his State of the Union address:
The American people want to see that you’re going to make a change, but for the president it’s important that he not shift radically because of one election...He needs to stay the course and not all of the sudden become something that he isn’t. The country was very inspired by Barack Obama— all kinds of voters. He needs to reconnect on that basis.
In other words, President Obama inspired the nation because he symbolized "change," but after one year those same voters are demanding that his version of change is not change at all. Therefore, Obama must find a way to change himself if he wants to reclaim the symbol of positive change.
Whew! What a complicated mess.
The bottom line is that the voters who sought change by electing Obama do not yet feel any change in their lives after one year of his Presidency.
Instead, these former supporters of Obama see a series of changes elsewhere in the country, the result of which is that their enthusiasm for Obama has change into anger at Obama.
In particular, the change Obama supporters see is a strengthening of the place and well-being of large corporations in American society. While corporations have always played a larger role in the American system, many erstwhile Obama enthusiasts feel that corporations became even more powerful and more influential as a result of the President's actions in 2009.
Specifically, most of the anti-corporate anger emerges from the perception that the executive class of larger private and publicly traded companies have dramatically increased their personal wealthy by exercising their influence over government since President Obama took office.
Overall, the new intensity of anger at corporate executives has redefined the meaning of the most central word in Barack Obama's political arsenal.
One year ago, the word "change" in American politics mostly meant "a break from the political leadership of the past." In the 2008 Presidential primaries, when Obama supporters talked of "change" they meant "not Bush" and "not Clinton." Today, when these same voters talk about "change" they mean "not in favor of wealthy corporate executives."
This shifting meaning has caused two large problems for the President in recent weeks.
The first problem is that the White House has has not found an effective way to tap into the anger generated by the new meaning of "change" as it is now being used by a large majority of his base, Obama's support amongst Democrats has plummeted. To address this problem, the President will try to speak out in his State of the Union speech against the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending in politics, but it is not clear that this rhetorical approach will reconnect with his base.
The second problem is that the Republican Party has found a way to tap into the anger generated by this new meaning of "change" and combine it with the different, but also intense anger of the Tea Party movement to win a midterm election. To address this problem, the President will try to argue in his State of the Union Speech that he is a true champion of working families.
Whatever happens in his speech, tonight, it seems unlikely the President will be able to solve the problems "change" is now causing for him in one pass.
To reclaim the high ground on "change," the President must persuade his once fervent supporters to stay with him, and he must deliver policies that lead quickly to a feeling of economic progress in their lives. The only way to accomplish the second part of that equation, is for the President to set down a policy goals of using government resources to put unemployed people back to work within the next 3 to 6 months--an emergency work legislation of the order that FDR created in the last great unemployment crisis of American history.
In this sense, the economic fate of the nation's working families and the political fate of the President are at the same crossroads.