When George W. Bush looks back someday on the wreckage of the past eight years, even he may realize that he missed his most important political opportunity in the months after 9/11. Despite his lackluster performance on that day, Americans stood with him as the symbol of the nation, displaying a steadfast and sober unity we had not felt for decades. He betrayed us all by discarding that spirit. Instead he followed the bad counsel of Karl Rove, whose dreams of a century of Republican rule could only be realized by demonizing the Democrats as unpatriotic or worse.

The Rove strategy was brilliantly successful, for a time. Yet over the long term that incessant bullying partisanship only stiffened resistance to Bush. Had the president governed instead with a decent respect for his adversaries — had he listened to the other side — his political career might have ended in something better than utter ruin and the lowest U.S. presidential approval ratings of all time.

Now Barack Obama is trying hard not to make that kind of mistake before he is inaugurated. So he will continue to reach out to the same people who have spent the past six months vilifying him. He will try to reassure the voters whose fears have been exploited in this campaign. He will certainly enlist the Republicans and independents who may be disposed to advise and assist him, whether they supported him or not.

In his rhetoric and his appointments, he can be expected to behave as Bush ought to have acted in a time of national crisis. That means drawing on goodwill wherever he can find it, drawing on talent regardless of party and drawing on the powerful desire of most Americans to live again in one nation.

All of his bipartisan gestures, however necessary and sincere, need not mean that Obama must abandon his promises of change upon taking the oath of office. But he can safely ignore the pompous advice he is receiving from many quarters to ingratiate himself with the establishment and to prove that he is sufficiently mature to trash his ideals. For he above all must know by now, after traveling across the country for the past two years, that people are in the mood for something different. They have just told us, with unprecedented vehemence, that the last thing they want is more of the same.

Indeed, the corollary of Obama’s call for change is that American political culture has shifted away from the dominant conservatism of the past three decades. He perceived that shift, which is one of the reasons that he defeated Hillary Clinton, whose campaign failed to understand what was happening until it was too late.

That is why he ran for president, and it is why he ran on a platform that became increasingly specific about the changes he will make. He cannot back away from reforming health care and bringing coverage to all, but he doesn’t have to back away because that is what the public wants and what the country needs. He cannot back away from rebuilding our energy system to reduce climate change, but he doesn’t have to — because that is what the public wants and what the world needs. He doesn’t have to back away from a massive investment program in infrastructure, transportation and education, either, because everyone agrees that we need productive economic stimulus. And he doesn’t have to back away from a new regime of financial and economic regulation, including a renewal of labor rights, because deregulation is discredited, as even its advocates can no longer deny.

His ideas are anathema to the Republican right, which can be expected to protest and obstruct with all the bile it can muster. But so what? The voters are no longer entranced by conservative ideology, if they ever were, and they are impatient for new solutions.

Obama means to govern from the center, as most presidents have. That is the nature of his temperament and his character, if not his ideology. But if he means to fulfill his mandate — and there is no reason yet to believe otherwise — he will mark the center in a new place.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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