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Is 'Change' More Than Just A Slogan For Obama Campaign?

Barack Obama is hoping to turn his victory in South Carolina into more wins on Super Tuesday.

Oregon’s presidential primary isn’t until May. It’s likely the parties will have chosen their nominees by then.

On the way to there, candidates are making a lot of promises. But it takes a lot more than promises to get things done in Washington, D.C.

Presidential candidates say they want to bring change. To do it, they have to shake up the inertia of politics as usual. In the second in a special series from Capitol News Connection, Todd Zwillich asks how Barack Obama might bring change to Washington.

Change, you’ve heard about it in the campaign, again and again. Barack Obama has made it the underlying and the overarching theme of his campaign, as in this moment from the South Carolina Democratic debates….

Barack ObamaBarack Obama: “I believe that change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.”

Barack Obama selling change is hardly a surprise. Almost every candidate does. It’s the easiest way to convince voters they should replace the politician, or the party, that’s in power.

Barack Obama: “Transparency and accountability, getting people involved that’s how we’re going to bring about change, that’s why I want to be President of the United States. To respect the power of the American people to bring about change”

When it comes to delivering change there are infinite ways for a president to succeed, and to fail. After only four years as a senator, Barack Obama doesn’t have much of a record in Washington.

Ask Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio what he wants from the next president and you get the sense right away that the change he’s looking for is almost any change from the Bush Administration.

Peter DeFazio: “I just want someone who’s kind of realistic, someone you can work with, someone who doesn’t just hew to some bizarre , right-wing, neocon ideology on a whole host of issues whether it’s foreign affairs or transportation infrastructure, or income taxes, or anything else”.

Peter DeFazio so far isn’t convinced about Barack Obama or any of the other candidates in the Democratic field.

Peter DeFazio: “I don’t normally make endorsements, unless I’m inspired."

Reporter: "So far?"

Peter DeFazio: "Uh, I am not yet making an endorsement.”

But if Barack Obama is elected president, some change comes with him, automatically.

For one, he’s African American. And he’s young — just 46. At 47 on Inauguration Day in 2009, Obama would be one of the youngest presidents in history. Obama’s relative youth echoes another senator-turned president — John F Kennedy.

The comparison follows Barack Obama just about everywhere he goes. Kennedy’s own daughter and his brother Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama this week calling him the candidate who embodies the kind of change JFK represented.

The comparisons to JFK — the idea of a new Camelot in the White House — isn’t lost on Sally Quinn. The author and Washington Post reporter is one of the arbiters of Washington’s power scene.

She says Obama’s non-traditional presidency would be a tectonic shift in how Washington operates socially, and politically.

Sally Quinn: “The way we’ve been doing things is old and tired and stale and I think it would be, as you say, extraordinarily refreshing to have a new face here. Now whether he would make a great president, I don’t know.”

Comparisons to JFK follow Barack Obama just about everywhere he goes. But if the comparisons are true would they help Obama in Congress. Not necessarily, says Donald Ritchie, the Senate’s associate historian.

Ritchie says just like Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama is trying to be the first person since Kennedy to go straight from the Senate to the Oval Office. But being a young upstart senator didn’t really help JFK with Congress.

Donald Ritchie: “When John F Kennedy was elected in 1960, he had been a junior senator, sort of a back-bench senator. He wasn’t taken as seriously by his colleagues as he was by the voters in the primaries, and as a result he didn’t really have the close connections especially with the chairmen of the powerful committees whose support he was going to need.”

Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings is a key Obama supporter in the House. He acknowledges the echoes of JFK in Obama’s candidacy. But Cummings says when it comes to getting his way in Congress Barack Obama’s greatest asset is authenticity.

Elijah Cummings: “I’ve come to learn this over my years in politics. People want to know that you believe in what you’re saying. If they believe that you believe, even if they disagree with you, they may follow you. And he has that.”

There is at least some evidence suggesting that may be true. So far in the primaries, Barack Obama has managed some votes from Independents, and even a few Republicans. Of course it’s an open question whether that broad appeal would survive a bruising and partisan general election.

But for Cummings, Barak Obama has another asset maybe just as powerful as voter appeal.

Elijah Cummings: “There’s something about small talk, there’s something about relationships. There’s something about a president putting his hand on your shoulder and saying I need you. I think it’s very important, and I think Obama will be good at that.”

In a Barack Obama presidency, that might be more likely to happen to a Democrat like Peter DeFazio, than a Republican like Oregon’s Greg Walden.

Walden says translating the talk of change into real changes in Congress takes a lot more than a soft personal touch or even authenticity.

Walden says the a president Obama or any new president would find a lot of forces lined up against change almost as soon as they reach the White House.

Greg Walden: “The question is, the devil’s in the details, what kind of change are they talking about. You don’t get much of that, you get a lot of the word usage, change, change, change. And frankly Americans are ready for some change, there’s no doubt. But where it gets to the important part is when you find out what is that change they’re talking about, what policies specifically, and how. And that’s when it suddenly runs into, groups pop up and say, I didn’t mean that change, I meant some other change!”

For Donald Ritchie, the senate historian, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John McCain, and Barack Obama all have the advantage of Senate experience. Each should know how to work with Congress not against it to bring the change they all say they want.

Donald Ritchie: “Presumably that’s the way things will happen. If not, and things go back to polarization, then you’ll have a lot of filibusters and a lot of unachieved goals.”

So far Barack Obama is promising change mostly through inspiration. The past few weeks on the campaign trail have forced him to act more like an old-style bare-knuckle politician. If he reaches the White House he may face the same dilemma. 

Join us Wednesday morning when we meet John Edwards, as our special series on leading presidential candidates continues.