[Editor's Note: Today is the third installment of a six-part series by Jim Wallis reflecting on the past two years and painting a post-election vision for people of faith and Sojourners. We encourage you to read the essays, engage in conversation with others, and support Sojourners in making this vision happen.]
There are endless comparisons made between Obama, Clinton, and Reagan -- how badly each did in their first midterm elections, and how to recover and not be a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. But in the case of Obama, the better historical models are FDR and the JFK/Johnson period. It was the robust activism of those independent progressive movements of the past which created the space for major reforms, and made other presidencies memorable. That's because social change does not ultimately rest on who is in the White House, but a movement outside of Washington, D.C. that makes fundamental reforms possible. What we need to re-learn now is the choreography of the "outside/inside dance" that real social change always requires.
Barack Obama, perhaps more than any other American president, is aware of the "call and response" tradition in the black church. This tradition is why I love to preach in black churches. When the preacher "calls," and the congregation "responds," your sermon actually gets better, stronger, and deeper. It can even change your sermon, taking you in directions you were not planning to go.
It's time for this president to find the political equivalent of the black church's "call and response." He needs to be engaged with the movement that elected him, over the heads of the special interests and elites that now run this country, and even over the heads of Congress and their leaders from both parties. We need presidential leadership that can break through the 24-hour news cycle and connect directly with voters even when he isn't immediately looking for their votes. It would require meeting with key constituency leaders and groups, including the faith community, not just to get their support for the White House political agenda, but to actually help shape a deeper social agenda and strategy. Part of this requires a change in perspective -- to see an independent social movement on the outside as necessary and worth supporting (i.e. calling for it), rather than seeing an independent social movement as a threat or as constituencies that must be appeased or simply mobilized for e-mail campaigns on behalf of the administration's agenda. Most White Houses have been incapable of a wider and deeper perspective, but that is what we need from the Obama administration.
Real social movements also reject the rigid partisanship that has come to dominate Washington. They stick to their core principles and realize they have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but rather, permanent issues. The kind of social movement we now need will not focus on Democratic or Republican victories in the next election cycle, but in finding allies wherever they can for a set of moral principles and issues.
Such presidential leadership would, of course, seem a very risky strategy -- which many or even most White House aides will likely tell the president. But if Obama's own "calling" is to really lead the change we can truly believe in, he might come to see that a bolder leadership style is the best, or even only, way to accomplish that vision; or at least give it the best shot he possibly can.
Just as Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass, Roosevelt needed a pressuring labor movement. And just as Kennedy and Johnson needed King and the black-church led civil rights movement, I believe that Barack Obama now needs the kind of social movement that is always necessary to make real change in Washington. He can't do this by himself, which he must painfully realize by now.
[Part 4 of this series, "How Access to Power Can be Dangerous," will be available on the God's Politics blog tomorrow. Sojourners is building a movement to inspire hope, over fear. That's the message that must echo in 2010. Help us make it happen.]
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.