"Change" has been a political siren song since the first disputed
presidential election in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas
The 2008 season is no exception. Barack Obama wants to change
partisan Washington to become more responsive to average Americans.
Hillary Rodham Clinton vows to change "the failed policies and the
wrong-headed priorities of this administration." Not to be outdone,
John McCain pledges to change the capital's spendthrift ways.
Political analysts say it's rare for a president to usher in
genuine change. The reasons: Constitutional constraints on the
executive, the entrenched political culture on Capitol Hill, and the
But some presidents have succeeded in bringing in a new era. In
the 20th century, historians cite Teddy Roosevelt, his cousin
Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. In studying
their legacies, historians say three things are necessary for a
president to make a significant impact on the status quo. First, the
public must want change. Second, a president must have the
rhetorical skills to lead and inspire. Finally, he or she must have
the political skills to implement a vision in the sometimes moribund
halls of Congress.
With more than 80 percent of Americans now telling pollsters they
believe the country is on the wrong track, political analysts say
the foundation is there for 2008 to become a truly transformative
election. But historians note that it's not until a politician
actually sits in the Oval Office and begins to govern that history
and citizens can judge how effective the person is as an agent of
"The president is not a hapless giant, he does have to use his
bully pulpit: He does have some tools," says Stephen Hess of the
Brookings Institution in Washington. "But we can never know how
skillfully a person will be at using them, until they are actually
given those tools. That's a huge question mark."
In the heated Democratic primary, Senator Obama, from the start,
has championed himself as the candidate of change. Senator Clinton,
meanwhile, portrays herself as the more experienced candidate and
better equipped to bring about change. Indeed, the two candidates'
policy proposals aren't all that different. But polls have shown
that Obama's change message is the one that's resonated. For
example, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken in mid-
March, 56 percent of Americans said Obama could "bring the kind of
change the US needs," compared with 49 percent for Clinton and 39
percent for Senator McCain.
History has shown that calling for change is a crowd pleaser,
especially when candidates can also lift people up with their words.
Here, political analysts give Obama the advantage. They point to
the Illinois senator's most recent campaign ad in which he plays on
the theme of inspiration: "One voice can change a room, and if it
can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a
city...." The ad goes on to say that a voice can change a state, and
a nation, and a world. "Let's go change the world," Obama concludes.
Then, the crowd cheers, while the words "For a nation changed, a
world healed" appear on the screen. …