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Connection is critical for Obama

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Let the man have his BlackBerry." I said that to a meeting of senior transition staffers in Washington last week. I've been working with Barack Obama since before the election, and I know that without his virtual connection to old friends and trusted confidants beyond the bubble that seals off every president from the people who elected him, he'd be like a caged lion padding restlessly around the West Wing, wondering what's happening on the other side of the iron bars that surround the People's House.

An off-line Obama isn't just bad for Barack. It's bad for all of us.

The president's ability to reach outside his inner circle gives him access to fresh ideas and constructive critics; it underscores the difference between political "victories" and actual solutions; and it brings the American people into a battle we can only win by working together.

Over the next four years, Americans will have to make sweeping changes in the way we produce, consume and pay for energy. We'll need to fundamentally reform public education so that graduates have math and science skills that rival rather than lag their peers overseas. We'll have to transform our health-care system and use information technology to cut costs and improve outcomes so that we can bring everyone into the system and restrain the inflation that threatens to gallop away with Medicare and Medicaid.

And, as we do each of these things, we'll be fighting a once-in-a-century economic crisis and working to bring two wars to a final and noble conclusion.

Americans elected Obama to engage in these battles not simply because they feared the future but because he invited them into his campaign. And throughout the transition, he remained hard-wired to Americans' concerns and their ideas.

Obama understands that he has to tap every possible source of ideas and support if he is to meet the hope he has inspired in tens of millions of Americans.

That's why his first major political meeting took him not to the Congressional Democratic Caucus but to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for a bipartisan meeting with America's governors and discussions that ranged far beyond the who's up and who's down concerns of the Beltway. It's also why he altered the tax provisions in his economic recovery plan simply because senators convinced him that more jobs would be created if money was invested somewhere besides a tax credit for companies hiring new workers.

He asks, he listens, he decides. Good traits for troubled times.

And he doesn't really hold grudges. He knew that he needed someone whose experience could help him reassert American leadership in a world that needs leadership badly, so he went outside the bubble and picked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been through a brutal 15-round title fight with him for the nomination, to be his secretary of State.

I know that the capacity to reach out and stay in contact with the world beyond the bubble will remind President Obama that economic recovery isn't measured by the theoretical economic returns but in people employed in good jobs, with secure benefits and rising wages.

It will remind him that education policy is less about legislative victories or targeted grants and more about sending children into the world with the tools they need.

And energy policy is more than progressive ideas and editorial approval. It's protecting a beautiful nation for us and our children and putting people to work keeping it green.

Tuesday, thousands of reporters, pundits and bloggers produced instant analyses of the president's swearing-in. By dawn today, there will be a comprehensive document in President Obama's inbox summarizing the reaction, highlighting key opinion makers and linking to original sources across the Internet. Obama will surely flip through them.

But I know that he will have gotten his first feedback hours earlier, from a friend, far beyond the Beltway. On the BlackBerry he's keeping. And knowing that gives me hope.

• John D. Podesta served as co-chairman of Barack Obama's transition team; he is the founder and president of the Center for American Progress and was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.



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