It's too early to know how Barack Obama will govern which is why each of his cabinet appointments has been followed by rounds of tea-leaf reading by pundits, pols and regular folk . But I think that his selection of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inaugural, maybe more than anything so far, highlights one of the central problems that Obama will face as president.
The Warren pick is exactly the kind of move you'd expect from a figure who rose to national prominence in 2004 by telling the country that there is not a black america, nor a white america, but the United States of America (that may be the single most italic-worthy sentence of the current millenium.) The problem is that it is not true. We want it to be and more than any politician in recent history, Obama is the beneficiary of a vision of America that we believe in but which does not exist. At least not yet.
But there is a flipside to the kind of political ecumenism that Obama is advocating, one that Clinton raised but (as with many of her critiques) failed to gain any traction. The short version is this: there are things we will have to fight about and we can have change or we can have national unity, but probably not both.
There is one pole in American politics in which figures like Rove and the late Lee Atwater flourish, the one in which the country is fractured and deliberated pitted against each other, where the term "wedge issue" isn't even considered a pejorative.
At the other extreme is a kind of touchy-feely centrism that glosses over real differences in the name of unity -- and that "unity" is often a disservice to groups/causes with legitimate grievances. Given that we've been at the first pole for eight years we may be rushing toward the opposite one.
It's been my observation that change usually begins on the political margins and has to fight its way to the center. Organized labor was considered a bunch of un-American radicals for decades before the Wagner Act in the 1930s. Civil Rights groups sat on the fringe for a half-century before gaining enough influence for Truman to denounce lynching and integrate the military. Domestic violence was once a fringe issue.
Groups advocating "change" whether of the FDR sort or the Reagan doesn't usually come from the center (unless maybe the "change" is realizing that there actually is a center.) The most important changes of the 20th century -- social security, civil rights, legalized abortion -- have evoked huge controversies and lasting divisions before they came to be generally accepted (that has yet to happen with abortion but it probably will.)
So we get to Obama's fundamental paradox: how do you preserve national unity and institute change simultaneously? That's a hard trick to pull off.
As per Warren, Obama was elected by people who are by and large at least moderately pro-choice and he had the benefit of high levels of support from the gay and lesbian community. For the latter folks, legalized marriage is "the change we need." On the other hand Obama's invitation to Warren is meant to convey a kind of just the kind of post-partisanship that he promised.
I always find the Sunday political shows interesting when, in the name of decorum and public relations, people with radically different agendas share a kind of chummy, cozy friendship of old college friends. The implications are "Yes, I know you support a war in which hundreds of thousands of people will die for reasons that remain unclear, billions will be recklessly spent, and American prestige will crater but that doesn't mean you're a bad guy."
In the name of national unity, the liberal Adlai Stevenson chose the segregationist John Sparkman as VP on the 1952 Democratic ticket. Black Democrats were rightfully furious. Unity is just as often a buzzword for those quiet periods where little changes.
Rick Warren's invitation is not as bad the Sparkman choice -- he's making a prayer, not policy. But it raises the memory of groups being left in the cold in the name of unity.
Barack can have change or he can bridge the divsions in American politics. It's possible but highly unlikely he -- or we -- can have it both ways.