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Tough tests for the Obama brand

Can Obama's new political paradigm trump the old?

This post is a retooled and expanded version of my Sunday print column. With research and brainstorming assistance from UPenn student/political writer Emily Schultheis.

One of these days I expect to visit the cereal aisle of my local supermarket and discover Barack Obama's saintly smile on a Wheaties box.

Hey, why not? He's already a marketing phenomenon. Ben & Jerry's has introduced a new flavor of ice cream, "Yes Pecan!" A toy company is hawking a six-inch plastic Obama Action Figure, "in a time when America so desperately needed a hero" (in the words of the online sales pitch). Most importantly, Obama's circular logo, with the red and white path fronting a rising sun, is as ubiquitous as the Target bulls-eye and the Nike swoosh. He's the first great 21st-century brand; in web parlance, he's Commander in Chief 2.0.

He's a new kind of president, offering a new paradigm for governance, at a time when the nation is in the throes of tumultuous economic, cultural, and demographic change. He seems well suited to this historic moment; indeed, he seems to embody the America of the new millennium. And, with the aid of his cutting-edge communication tools, he seems uniquely well positioned to bond with a citizenry that is thirsting to believe – assuming, of course, that a citizenry hooked on instant gratification can be persuaded to be patient.

The big question – which will dominate the political plot arc of the next four years – is whether he can pull it off.

He has a few trifling things on his plate, such as a potentially catering economy, an expanding army of the jobless, an antiquated health care system, a couple wars and a cosmic terrorist threat, a global economic challenge from China and India, a busted immigration system, an oil-dependent energy policy, a teetering Social Security program (with Baby Boomer retirements on the horizon), a financially imperiled Medicare program, and a strained U.S. military.

I may have missed a few, such as Iran and Pakistan, loose nukes and Russia.

Obama not only intends to tackle all that, he also wants to change the way Washington does its tackling. He wants to craft a "post-partisan" approach to governance, whereby Democrats and Republicans can presumably link arms and sing "Kumbaya." But given the ingrained ideological tensions in Washington, plus the blogosphere and the cable-news beasts that require 24/7 feeding – indeed, given the fact that partisan warfare has been a staple of the city since its founding – Obama's new paradigm will be, shall we say, severely tested.

It's already clear that Obama intends to push back against those who try to test him. He's well aware that his aspirations for post-partisan governance can't be met simply by wishing for it; as he twice demonstrated the other day, he is fully capable of challenging the Capitol Hill Republicans with some tough love.

When Obama met Friday with members of the shrunken House GOP, to seek their support for a bipartisan stimulus package, deputy Republican leader Eric Cantor politely objected, on philosophical grounds, to certain facets of the Obama plan. (Apparently Cantor didn't like the idea of giving tax breaks to bottom-rung working Americans who pay no income taxes.) Obama politely replied that he, not the GOP, won the November election, so therefore his position would prevail.

It's not yet clear to me how Obama can get the House Republicans to bend to the new paradigm, especially since the surviving members are largely conservatives hailing from safe conservative districts. Most of the party's moderates, especially in the Northeast, were wiped out in the '06 and '08 elections. In dealing with the minority Republicans, Obama has limited options: showing some spine (as he did with Cantor), and appealing to the better angels of their nature.

He tried the latter on Friday, urging Republicans to turn a deaf ear to the usual noisome rants of conservative talk radio; in Obama's words, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." Limbaugh said on air the other day that "I want Obama to fail," a position that is shared in opinion polls by roughly the same percentage of Americans who say they'll miss George W. Bush. Limbaugh, a master of the old paradigm circa 1994, is nowhere close to the center in 2009; for the foreseeable future, that turf belongs to Obama and his brand.

Indeed, conservative commentator Matthew Continetti argued recently in The Weekly Standard magazine that the GOP should give up on its delusion that most Americans are in sync with the party's smaller-government, old-paradigm ideology. He wrote: "Your average voter doesn't mind government action if he deems it necessary to pursue a public good...He votes for the party that has the most compelling program for the future, not the one simply trying to stand athwart it."

If anything, Obama's toughest irritant may prove to be his own party; Capitol Hill Democrats, particularly those from safe districts and reliably Democratic states, are typically committed to the old paradigm, liberal version. Some Democrats, in recent days, have talked about passing an economic recovery package with minimal Republican support, if necessary. Obama would like to do better than that.

Obama's prime political asset is that he begins his tenure with unprecedented public support – the pre-Inaugural polls reported that he's more popular entering office than his five immediate predecessors – and that includes considerable good will from Republican voters, many of whom were heartened by Obama's centrist national security appointments. Certainly, he is viewed far more favorably than the Congress. Most Americans clearly feel invested in his quest, if only because they're happy to finally see a team of grownups in charge, and because, frankly, the repercussions of failure are too dreadful to contemplate.

And Obama intends to communicate his aims and curry support in new-paradigm fashion. Lest we forget, during the campaign he raised half a billion dollars online (average donation: $80), and amassed an unprecedented 13 million e-mail addresses. He spread his brand on Facebook and a slew of other social-networking sites (known to the new-paradigmers as "socnets"), where he picked up another five million supporters.

In short, he now has a grassroots reach unparalleled in politics – the potential makings of a new kind of political machine. Most of the Obama campaign database has been transferred to a newly-created group, Organizing for America, which is housed inside the Democratic National Committee, which in turn is chaired by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an Obama insider. The potential here is obvious: Whenever the president needs to light a fire under recalcitrant congressmen, he can use the Internet to summon his citizen army - although the Obama people insist that OFA's official purpose is to broaden grassroots support for Obama, not to lobby Washington.

The new paradigm is already in evidence at the presidential website,, which will be overseen by Obama's Director of New Media. Naturally, there's a blog. One early entry spells out the grassroots non-partisan credo: "President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority…and the Internet will play an important role in that."

Obama plans to post congressionally-enacted laws on the website for five days, to invite public comment before he signs them. He's also soliciting citizen ideas about website content. He's also offering regular "email updates" on "major announcements and decisions" to any citizen who wants to sign up. A few mouse clicks, and you're connected. The new paradigm is all about connectivity.

Naturally, it's in Obama's political interest to communicate in this fashion, and skeptics will undoubtedly dismiss his online messages as mere administration propaganda. (Sometimes, probably with good reason.) But all presidents seek to use the bully pulpit to advance their aims; the 21st-century pulpit just happens to be virtual.

The thing is, Obama also takes big risks on the website. Check it out for yourself. Click on The Agenda and scroll through the scores of promises, carried over from the campaign. What's most startling is their specificity – or, in the cutting-edge lingo, their transparency. One tiny example: Obama intends to ensure that "10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025." On other fronts, he vows to "raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011" and "completely eliminate income taxes for 10 million Americans."

In old-paradigm politics, it's quite dicey to itemize one's ambitions so openly. Come election time, the Republicans presumably will be all too happy to cite the unmet promises on Obama's website, using his target numbers against him.

That's assuming, of course, that they get any traction. If Barack Obama can navigate his way through this crisis, using his brand to nurture grassroots support and tame the impatient impulses of our sound-bite culture, then the new paradigm will surely be emulated by all who succeed him.