Publish Date: Dec. 29, 2008
Cover Story: Why History Can’t Wait
How TIME Covered the News: The 44th President of the United States; the first African American to hold the office; TIME’s Person of the Year.
“Just like our banks and our carmakers, America’s shattered confidence is in serious need of a bailout. And the thing about competence is that it nourishes fresh confidence. “Yes, we can” is both an affirmation of optimism and the essential claim of the competent. When the slogan is rooted in a record of accomplishment — when tomorrow’s yes-we-can is backed up by yesterday’s yes-we-did — confidence and competence begin to feed on each other. This virtuous cycle of possibility isn’t the whole of leadership, but it is an important part and perhaps the element most needed in today’s sea of troubles. (See pictures of Obama’s nation of hope.)
After the election, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart convened one last focus group to ask Virginia voters why a state that gave Bush an 8-point victory four years ago chose Obama by 6 points this time. Their responses clustered around the crucial connection between competence and confidence. They told Hart they were drawn to Obama’s self-assured and calming personality. They felt he was “honest,” a “straight shooter” — in other words, a person who does what he says he will do. Their confidence in Obama wasn’t starry-eyed; they hadn’t been swept away by his stadium speeches. They saw a man who can get some things done, at a time when so many of their leaders, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street, cannot. He made moderates feel hopeful, and even among many core Republicans who did not ultimately vote for him, Obama inspired admiration. Viewing these comments through the results of his national surveys, Hart discerned a surge of good feeling that he had not seen in a generation: “a sense of real hope,” he says, “and the kind of broad bipartisan support that has not been in evidence since the 1980 Reagan election.”