Some coincidences are too uncanny to ignore. Given the well-documented influence the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln has had on Barack Obama, you could be forgiven for thinking that something more than dumb luck played a part in aligning the stars so that Lincoln's bicentennial fell the day after Obama's economic recovery package was approved by the Senate. There was Obama in the capitol rotunda, simultaneously celebrating the Great Emancipator's birthday, and a crucial success on Capitol Hill.
But the legislative forces that shaped and placed limits on the recovery package suggested that the kind of change Obama promised during his campaign will not come easily. The legislative process has been famously compared to making sausage. Dealing with the grinder Obama's recovery plan was subjected to recalled Lincoln less than another of Obama's political heroes: former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Harold Washington was Chicago's first black mayor. Formerly a congressman from Chicago's south side, Washington ran as a reformer and won a three-way race in the 1983 Democratic primary with incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley - the man who runs the city today. Thanks to a massive voter registration campaign that added 100,000 people from the city's black community, Washington was able to get the nomination with 37 percent of the vote.
Winning the primary is usually the same as winning the election in Democratic-dominated Chicago. But the city's Democratic organization recoiled at the prospect of having Washington, a change-agent, in charge. White Democratic aldermen mounted an insurgency that played on racial fears and threw support behind a Republican named Bernard Epton, who had buttons printed reading, "Before It's Too Late."
Washington still managed to win the election, beating Epton with 51.7 percent of the vote.
The next four years came to be known as the "Council Wars." Although Democrats dominated Chicago's City Council, a majority of those Democrats consistently blocked Washington's initiatives and appointments. Chicago's evening news in those days played like a running brawl, as the insurgent ringleaders, Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak (since indicted for corruption) and Edward Burke, did everything they could to tear Washington down.
With a majority in his own party bent on destroying him, Washington had no choice but to absorb the blows - and turn to the people. He could only trust that his enemies would overplay their hand, which, sure enough, they did.
As the city's quality of life deteriorated, more and more people gravitated toward Washington. In 1987, he won reelection with 53.8 percent of vote. He more than doubled the number of whites who voted for him. With his opponents discredited, it looked, finally, as if Washington - and his city - had turned a corner.
Harold Washington was just a few months into his second term when he died of a heart attack. But his legacy still resonates. Washington's first mayoral election prompted Barack Obama to move to Chicago. And the man Washington chose to manage his reelection campaign, David Axelrod, would go on to be Obama's chief political advisor.
As Democrats dithered and Republicans self-righteously beat their chests over the recovery package, I wondered: What would Washington do? Although Obama seemed uncertain at first, a little too willing to defer to Republican demands, he eventually seemed to take a page from Washington's playbook: He took his case directly to the people. In so doing, he changed the character of the debate.
I suspect we are going to see Obama doing more of this. And we, the people, are going to have to help him. Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, made up as they are of wealthy and well-off (mostly) men who won their seats by positioning themselves to the right of their Republican opponents, don't want to change anything. No, their goal is to try to bring back those good old days when the rich got richer, and the rest of us lived on credit.
That's why so many Democrats seemed cowed by Republicans who continue to argue that the only way to get the economy going again is to move yet more money and resources toward the wealthiest 5 percent in the hope these Masters of the Universe will eventually get the memo, straighten up and fly right.
Sorry, but as Obama came around to pointing out, we've been there and done that. This assertion, though, does not mean that the recovery package will succeed. As long as our leaders, Obama included, insist that what's broken can be fixed, instead of changed, we are likely to be in for more disappointment.
The ray of hope is that Obama's election was based on the mobilization of an extraordinary, cross-generational outpouring of desire for "change we can believe in." This is not a bipartisan deal, it's nonpartisan. It's about what works. Anybody in Congress - Democrat or Republican - who can't understand this needs to hear from voters on a regular basis (by letter, by e-mail and by phone) now, and for as long it takes. Obama can get the ball rolling, but no one is going to help him but us.