There's the old saying: "He was the right man in the right place in the right time." In my callow youth, when I believed that one person couldn't change the world, I would have scoffed at that notion. History was motivated by movements, not individuals. The best for which you could hope was to be on the right side as history's tide rolled along.
I still believe in the idea that history is molded by movements. The Arab Spring is an example of that, of a popular uprising with no clear leaders, but which has a clear agenda.
But, Barack Obama has made me completely reconsider the idea that an individual cannot effect change.
History is molded by forces which are bigger than the individual. But, at certain moments, there comes someone who, again, is the right person at the right place at the right time. He or she captures the hopes which surround him, giving voice to them, giving direction to a movement that is part of him yet greater than him.
Obama's two constant refrains are: I can't do this on my own, and You are the change you've been waiting for. His singular genius is in recognizing that there is a hunger in the country for people to re-take their power of agency. For so long we've been told that, yes, we are at the mercy of history's tide, that forces are at work beyond our ken or ability to influence, that the best we can do is ride it out and survive in some desultory fashion. Globalization is a perfect example of this: the idea that manufacturing would leave the US for cheaper labor in Asia, and the best we could hope for would be to flip each others' burgers. History was on the march, and we had no power to stop it.
Obama's central idea is that, yes, history is on the march; but we are its actors. History's course is determined by what we do as individuals, and what we as individuals can do collectively. What he is trying to do is build a movement which will outlast him, and which gives the ordinary citizen the idea that yes, my voice matters, my vote matters, my will matters. We are not merely at the mercy of socio-historical factors, but are their instigators, their directors, and eventually their beneficiaries. We are the change for which we've waited; we've always been that change. We just needed someone to express it in an accessible manner; but more than that, we needed someone who truly believed it, and didn't just use it as a vehicle to achieve personal power.
Of course, to forge this movement, there is one huge roadblock: the modern conservative power structure. It benefits from that feeling of helplessness, as that keeps it in control and increases its wealth. The people behind the Keystone Pipeline want it for the simple reason that it will save them a few dollars on a barrel of oil. Having billions isn't enough; once you reach that level of wealth, the wealth itself is the end, amassing as much of it as you can. It becomes a feedback loop, or the junkie's quest for that initial, paradisaical high. And for many people who amass that type of wealth, they start to believe that the rest of us should defer to them, as they obviously know something we don't. Conservatives prosper when the public is apathetic.
As I've said in other essays, everything Obama has done since deciding to run for the office in 2007 is to methodically expose the conservative movement for its true pathology. It has skated by on God, guns, and gays for the better part of 30 years. And often that's been enough. But in Obama it has met someone who knows exactly what its weaknesses are, and who has few weaknesses of consequence of his own. This movement of citizens' empowerment needed someone like Obama to be the point of the spear, to cut through the fatty tissue of a conservative faction that had become besotted with its own success, and was ripe to be swept away. This was not a project of 4 years, and it's a project that will continue after he is done with the Presidency. It is a generational challenge, to build a country worthy of its aspirations and stated principles. It's not an easy path; but true change is never easy. It requires work and diligence and the courage to stick with the battle when things seem dark. And it requires a vision of what can be achieved, the kind of world that can be crafted by all that work, sweat, and blood.
We are living in the Obama Moment, and at the beginning of the Obama Movement. This is the best place to be.