Change From the Top

By Kathleen Parker
Friday, November 28, 2008

Sound the alarms, man the barricades, alert the producers! Barack Obama, agent of change, isn't a-changin'.

As the president-elect recycles Clintonistas into Cabinet appointments -- even considering Hillary for secretary of state -- and appears set to keep Bush's defense secretary for at least another year, conventional wiseguys are wondering: Where's the change?

Perhaps we're looking for change in all the wrong places. In other ways, less apparent but of long-term importance, Obama may be the change he promised.

Setting aside the obvious -- his use of complete sentences, free of words yet to be discovered -- he is uniquely positioned to change the world on multiple levels.

As Jeff Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe, recently suggested: Obama is a weapon of mass attraction. That attractiveness isn't just physical but a matter of style.

Before the harrumphers tune up, no one's arguing for style over substance, but style does matter. Style isn't only cosmetic but has to do with the way one enters and takes a room's temperature.

Style is the instinct to swagger -- or not.

Speaking recently at the Ethics and Public Policy Center about public diplomacy, Gedmin pointed out that George Bush's "bring 'em on" cowboy style worked for about half the American people and about 5 percent of the globe. By comparison, he said, Obama's style resonates with about 90 percent of the world.

Both Gedmin and fellow speaker Kenneth Pollack -- a Persian Gulf expert and author of "A Path Out of the Desert" -- agreed that the messenger, as well as the message, matters. How successfully the United States communicates its interests to the rest of the world turns in part on who is delivering the information and how the "sale" is pitched.

"Sale" gets quotation marks because, says Pollack, we need to stop thinking in terms of selling and advertising. Rather, the best marketing tool for "selling" liberal democratic values (much like religious conviction) is by living those values, rather than preaching or trying to impose them.

Sometimes our values and interests intersect, sometimes they don't. To the extent Obama understands that concept -- and he seems to -- he is change.

On the domestic front, what does he offer?

Again, setting aside specific policies, Obama's example could have society-altering effects, especially in the African American community. By his example, he telegraphs the following messages: Being smart is good; education is good; being a good father is essential. Being an egghead is cool.

Conservatives insist, correctly, that culture matters. Many liberals think so, too, by the way. Why, some liberals even stay married their entire lives to the same person and raise children to do the same.

You want Ward Cleaver? Meet Barack Obama. Michelle is June Cleaver with a law degree. Family values don't get more traditional than those of the Obamas, who ooze marital bliss and whose adorable daughters make feminist cynics want to bake cookies and learn to smock.

Though we may perish of boredom, the Obamas may do more to elevate the American family than all the pro-marriage initiatives conceived by those who claim to speak for the deity. As a family unit, they're not significantly different from the Bushes, but they can be an inspiration in particular to African Americans.

Despite strides in some areas, the African American community is the most damaged in our culture, in part because of misguided policies that have decimated the family. Aid to Families With Dependent Children, for instance, was predicated on no man in the house, sending fathers fleeing from parental responsibility. Although other demographic groups are fast catching up, blacks today have the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate -- about 70 percent.

The fallout from fatherless homes can be measured in poverty and crime rates. Justice Department figures from mid-2005 show that 12.9 percent of black men in their late 20s were in prison or jail, compared with 4.3 percent of Hispanics and 1.6 percent of whites.

Bias undoubtedly plays a part in the imbalance (the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity is but one example). But the correlation between absent fathers and crime has been well established by decades of social science.

The change we've been waiting for may not be immediately quantifiable, but personal responsibility, educational ambition and smart public diplomacy -- all by example rather than exhortation -- could go a long way toward curing what ails us.

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