But the most important achievement so far is that Obama has managed (mostly) to keep our nation's optimism afloat — despite Blagojevich, despite the auto-industry-bailout mess, despite the public's generally pessimistic outlook, Obama is still enjoying higher ratings and a longer honeymoon period than any recent predecessor. He's courting doubters while making sure that his base gives him the benefit of the doubt. That's Change.
Not there yet
The question becomes whether Obama will be a servant to his advisors, or whether he will learn from their experience, absorb their suggestions, and yet ultimately go his own, progressive, way.
As he rounds out his cabinet appointments, we'll assess his progress. (See how Obama's selections measure up, as they're made, at thePhoenix.com/TakeBackBarack.) With education, Obama was under pressure from conflicting pro-union and reform interests. One of his top transition-team education advisors was Linda Darling-Hammond, who had the support of teachers' unions, and is somewhat notorious for her stances against Teach for America and No Child Left Behind; but on Tuesday he chose Chicago public-school superintendent Arne Duncan — who is more reform-minded (generally favoring concepts such as merit-based teacher pay, charter schools, and high-stakes testing), but has questionable classroom bona-fides.
There's also the whole question of America's relationship with food, eating, and farming — and who Obama picks as his agriculture secretary will set the tone on these issues. While he's said he doesn't want the job, here's what sustainable-food guru Michael Pollan told PBS host Bill Moyers about the decision: "What Obama needs to do, if he indeed wants to make change in this area — and that isn't clear yet that he does, at least in his first term — I think we need a food policy czar in the White House because the challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it's connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education."
Just last week, in a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof suggested Obama "name a reformer to a renamed position" — Secretary of Food and Agriculture, or just of Food, perhaps?
On so many other questions — How will Obama deal with terror-suspect detainees? Who will he appoint to federal courts? How will his administration address the possibly illegal maneuverings of its predecessors? — we will simply have to wait and see. Perhaps, in this case, patience is practical.
"Sure, there's a chance that Mr. Obama, derided this past year by the right as an empty slate who tried to mean all things to all people, has simply been leading the left on and is now morphing into a rudderless pragmatist who will break their hearts," Steve Kornacki writes in the New York Observer. "But pragmatism doesn't have to be rudderless. It's just as easy to portray Mr. Obama's early moves as a sign that he will be pragmatic about pursuing progressive goals."
But there's a fine line between pragmatism and losing sight of one's principles. If Obama turns out to be "more of the same," or more like "more of the same" than he is like Change, the progressives will go back in the closet they came out of to support Obama. A generation of young people might get their hopes dashed and become cynical opters-out of the political system, like the preceding generation.