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An Inaugural Shift

President Obama's second inaugural may well be most remembered for the words he said rather than the policies he promoted. To friend and foe alike, the President has announced the new terms of the 21st century political discourse.
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President Barack Obama speaks at his ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama speaks at his ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Obama's second inaugural may well be most remembered for the words he said rather than the policies he promoted. He joins a long list of Presidents in repeating the call to "freedom" and an equally long list in citing the founding fathers. But never before has a president mentioned the words "gay" or "climate" or "disability" in an inaugural address. To friend and foe alike, the President has announced the new terms of the 21st century political discourse.

The rhetoric of the President's speech was evidence of a deep shift in the political process away from debates led by political elites and traditional political parties and toward the activist agendas as defined by non-governmental and citizen groups. While most politicians see the speech as an endorsement of progressive ideologies and a repudiation of more conservative ones, in the long run, it will be far more important for the signal it sends about how government goes about its job than about what the current congress does or fails to do.

Gay rights, disability rights, and environmental protection all have at least one thing in common: they have been led by non-governmental and even non-political organizations. None of these groups shaped their agendas at Brookings or Heritage or in Senate committees or in presidential task forces. They were shaped by citizens who organized themselves into powerful alliances capable of changing the cultural, social and finally, the political agenda of the country from the outside in. Importantly, they have become super charged in the current world of empowered citizens and growing individual, social and cultural entrepreneurship. They are just a few of a host of movements that will drive politics in the future in a new and very different way: from the outside in.

At some level, that has always been the American way. But at another level, the President's speech signaled a dramatic increase in the power of non-political actors that is consistent with the significant increase in their numbers in recent years. In just the last 20 years, the wide availability of technology and the easy access to social networks has led to an explosion in the number of citizen led organizations and in non-political activists. Some estimates claim that there are over 50,000 NGOs in the developing world alone, and others argue that non-profits deliver more development assistance than in the entire UN system excluding the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

These organizations now address a huge number of social and economic issues ranging from ending Malaria in Africa to funding elementary schools in the USA. Importantly, today's NGOs or not-for-profit organizations represent citizen level action that goes beyond traditional charitable causes like arts and health to areas typically reserved to governments like education reform, peace keeping, security, and trade regulation.

This change is equally -- perhaps more important -- for the diplomatic goals of the United States around the world. While the not-for-profit sector is a familiar actor in the United States, it is a new and even faster growing actor in other countries. The Arab spring gets significant attention for the way in which it dramatized how social media enabled citizen groups to topple governments, but of equal if less noticed importance is the way in which NGOs are representing women's rights in India, the way in which NGOs are representing disability rights in Malawi, the way in which NGOs are representing peace initiatives in Sudan and on and on. Arguably, the economic and political and security concerns of American citizens will be better protected by a diplomacy that engages these citizen actors than by traditional diplomacy that engages state actors.

This is a positive development but one that will require new models of leadership. Citizen activists can be leveraged by governments to produce significant results but to do so, political leaders will have to operate differently. Instead of making policy that dictates the actions of government agencies, leaders will have to make policy that sets goals for change and then invites multiple players to execute them. Instead of assembling coalitions to pass laws, politicians must now learn how to assemble coalitions to achieve outcomes. Instead of funding a government service delivery system to respond to social needs, leaders will now have to learn how to encourage entrepreneurial funding sources that leverage limited amounts of government resources to achieve sustainable citizen led change. Instead of rewarding political allies with government largesse, leaders will have to learn how to reward excellence in achieving results while celebrating courageous effort and innovation.

This is politics as the art of creating a spirit of possibility and a culture of engagement. The old debates about the size of government are over. Most people have no clue what size government ought to be but they have strong opinions about what kind of a people they want to be. The centrist voters who pundits refer to so often are defined less by what party they belong to and more by the spirit of possibility they long for. They are ready to be summoned to important and urgent work and they are ready to be engaged in the hard struggles of our time -- creating hope for the poorest children, creating beauty for a planet under siege, creating dignity for those who are lonely and stigmatized, creating safety for the values we share with most of the 7 billion people on the planet, creating economic stability for those who work hard for all the right reasons, creating a consciousness that invites peace and acceptance for all.

The challenge of politics will now be how to marshal citizen activists to common goals and not just to electoral ones, how to partner with citizen groups to achieve shared outcomes not just to ask for their lobbying for policy outcomes. In the near term both the President and the incoming Secretary of State should create new positions responsible for mobilizing the power of the citizen sector toward aspirational goals that need to be articulated by the President but implemented by broad bi partisan networks of citizens. Millions would respond if asked.

Imagine the calls to action that could be issued at low cost but with almost immeasurable impact. The President could set a goal of eliminating bullying of children with intellectual disabilities and other differences and ask young people -- not just the Department of Education -- to achieve it and they would respond in thousands of creative ways. The President could set a goal of increasing the earning power of women by 20 percent and ask thousands of citizen and business groups -- not just the Department of Justice -- to achieve it and they would respond and aim to exceed it. The President could call on citizen groups around the world to work together to find ways to teach peaceful ways of resolving conflict and in a generation, countries all over the world might just educate the least violent generation of all time.

The list of possibilities goes on and on. Citizen groups are ready to work with governments to achieve health care goals and to marshal an army of caregiving for our most vulnerable citizens. The President needs to ask them. Citizen groups would work with government to protect national parks and oceans, reduce energy consumption, and take practical steps like planting millions of trees the world over. The President needs to ask them. Citizen and business groups are ready to work with government to rehabilitate and employ veterans. The President needs to ask them. Citizen groups are ready to respond to emergencies like those in the gulf coast and Haiti and elsewhere. Much more would engage if the call were collaborative, the goals clear, the opportunities to make a difference well managed. Political leadership is often the only missing ingredient.

In the longer term, political leadership, far from being disempowered by the empowerment shift, will actually be elevated in influence and import. Only a political leader who represents the legitimate will of the people as confirmed by democratic processes can speak for the whole. Only those leaders can articulate the values and goals that bind people together. Only those leaders can carry the full power of a nation's heart in recognizing those who excel in the purposes of greatest national importance. Political leaders who become servants of citizen activism will find themselves all the more powerful in doing what only they can do: leading all the people.

Perhaps politicians will no longer see themselves as the sole arbiters of national and state agendas, but that is a good thing. Let's hope they respond to the shifting tide by seeing in it the chance to lead the world beyond the paralysis of selfish interests to a flowering of common hopes and dreams. I think that's what President Obama meant in his inaugural address. I hope he invites all of us to follow that vision.