“What Are We Going to Change To?”

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In a NYT article about how Indiana’s old fashioned voters may be resistant to Obama’s charms — “Frankly, we want it to be like it used to be,” says some dude — there is a question that you’ve heard many times before, in some form or another:

“What are we going to change to?” asked Ron O’Bryan, 58, a retired auto worker who said he was still trying to decide which Democrat to vote for in the May 6 primary.

I’ve mulled this over a lot, particularly because I’ve heard it frequently from voters at Hillary Clinton rallies. They’re usually on board for change, but they don’t know what Obama is promising. With H. Clinton, they usually operate under the assumption that it’ll be back to the future — a return to the familiar philosophies and policies of B. Clinton.

Now, in some cases they don’t know what Obama is promising because they’re Clinton supporters and haven’t attended Obama rallies or visited his website. That sort of extra work is necessary because Obama’s policy positions are overshadowed in the media by his message about “bringing people together” and “the smallness of our politics.” Voters want to know what direction a President Obama would take the country, and that message hasn’t gotten across.

But as we’ve said here many times, Obama is very similar to Hillary Clinton on policy. Obama’s change is less about policy and more about process — how government runs and how the president acts. Less access for special interests and lobbyists, more transparency, an increased willingness to work across the aisle… if you’re reading this blog, this is probably old hat for you by now.

But here’s the point I want to make. For many Obama supporters, policy and process both don’t matter. The question “What are we going to change to?” is a faulty one because change isn’t about a destination. It’s about empowerment — the possibility of change itself. The Obama campaign has very masterfully cultivated the feeling that everyday people have the ability to change the country, something voters and potential voters who have tuned out politics probably haven’t felt in a long time.

“Yes we can” and “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” are manifestations of this. Consider what I wrote after attending a University of Pittsburgh rally for Obama the night before the Pennsylvania primary: “Perhaps the biggest roar of the night came when Senator Bob Casey said, in his introduction of Obama, ‘Are you ready to change America?’… In that auditorium, there were 10,000 young people who actually believed they could change America. Afterwards, the crowd was abuzz. No one seemed to care or know what the details of reform were — it was the possibility of change, the power to change, that was intoxicating.”

If you are an Indiana voter and you haven’t been bitten by the bug, none of this makes any sense to you. And you are left with a question that 10,000 college students at the University of Pittsburgh don’t feel needs to be asked.

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