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01.18.09

What Obama's America Will Look Like

How has the president-elect changed America? Start with the famous BlackBerry.

President Barack Hussein Obama, as he will be known by midday tomorrow, has changed everything about America already—and his epic battle to save his BlackBerry says it all.

When George W. Bush hit the campaign trail in 2000, the precious possession he brought with him from home was his personal feather pillow. The theme of the Bush years was obliviousness. He was famously unavailable for debate and dialogue. He was deaf to countervailing voices. He hit the sack early and always got a good night’s sleep.

As we know by now, what the pillow was to Bush the BlackBerry is to Obama. Bush couldn’t wait to turn in; Obama can’t bear to tune out. It’s richly symbolic that the president-elect has been resisting the security agencies who’ve been trying to pry his fingers from around his beloved electronic device. He wants to stay in touch with the advisors and friends who can bypass the gatekeepers. (C u meet me at the g8 fr coffee 2nite?)

Bush couldn’t wait to turn in; Obama can’t bear to tune out.

It always seemed to me ironic that the McCain campaign kept referring sneeringly to Obama’s meager résumé—a mere community organizer!—before he entered electoral politics. It was Obama’s experience as a community organizer that proved such a killer app when he applied that skill to the Internet. Those 12 million volunteers were literally conjured out of the air. Not only could he deploy his web army to distribute his leaflets, raise his funds, and sell his policy agenda, he could speak directly to them whenever he hit a snag. When he accepted the Democratic nomination in Invesco Field, tens of thousands held up their glowing mobile phones like candles at a rock concert.

But Obama was not just ahead of the curve in the way he understood the web. He was also the harbinger of a societal shift that is being played out now before our eyes in the current economic meltdown. He understood instinctively that the old structures—in his case, the structures of politics—had to be broken down and reassembled if we are to compete in the new world.

The same will prove true of business. The election delivered a seismic shock not just to the political world but to the suits at the top of Fortune 500 corporations. Call it the Obama Effect—a sudden hunger for creativity and innovation, a recognition that we have to be less massive and more nimble. It came too late for some, of course, as almost simultaneously we saw the sclerotic auto companies collapsing before us. The mantra of the next decade will be more consensual, less top-down, more cellular, less gigantic. Corporate communications will become a high-tech art just as political communication is for Obama. By the end of this new presidential era, every CEO who boasts that he has no time to use the Internet will be gone.

The new president’s biggest potential opportunity for cultural impact is to reverse the anti-intellectual atmosphere that reached its apogee under Bush the younger. Obama’s John Coltrane cool allows him to get away with being a nerd. Being brainy, being a wonk, is allowable when the package is lean and effortlessly hip, with serious eyes and a movie-star smile. Obama could make it fashionable to be book smart after years of Hollywood depictions of the kid in the class with straight A’s and his nose in a book as a hopeless loser. (There’s already a mini-cult building around his lead speech writer, Jon Favreau, who followed Obama from his Senate office to the White House and is all of 27.)

Would Obama have been able to pull this off if he were white? Seems unlikely. His literary prowess, preference for salads over steaks, and refined intelligence would have damned him as one of the dreaded liberal elite. Now that he’s the president he can appoint a cabinet of overcredentialed brainiacs from Harvard.

At the same time, Obama can say things to his African American supporters no white political leader ever could because he’s black like them. He listens to Jay-Z on his iPod, dances without biting his lower lip, and can sink a three-point basketball shot on the first try. His formidable wife is emphatically, unmistakably black. That makes it OK for him to declare to a black voter, “Brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on."

It’s in such personal exchanges with his base that the Obama cultural shift is likely to be most potent. They give a glimpse into the values that animate the private man. We’re now besotted with the images of the Obama family, those two enchanting little girls in their spic-and-span dresses, holding hands with their proud, statuesque mother and their father who—as he suddenly improvised on the night of his nomination victory—loves them “more than you will ever know.” Indeed, Michelle Obama may prove to be the most fully realized First Lady ever, a powerhouse in the public sphere but a role model at home. She seems to have resolved with Obamian grace the question of balance that is the torment of modern women: how to juggle work and family. Unlike Cherie Blair or Hillary Clinton she doesn’t strive to compete with her husband because she doesn’t have to. But unlike Nancy Reagan or Laura Bush she leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that she can. She’s just chilling for a while until the kids find their feet. She seems to be telling a nation of frazzled women: You’re allowed to breathe!

Her East Wing will be alive with the vibrant conversation of people who want to make a difference. Sensible of the comparisons perhaps to Kennedys’ Camelot that famously promoted the arts at the White House, Obama told Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press in December that he wants to highlight the diversity of American culture, inviting jazz musicians and classical musicians and poets to perform for his guests. “Historically,” he mused, “what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that sense that better days are ahead.”

The whole world prays that that sense will be proved true. It has a better chance now that Obama has broken the dark spell of the Bush years and pledged to return America to itself.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown. She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.