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Democrats’ quest for the ‘big idea’

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“You’re going to see greater federal activism, because there will be the expectation that he reacts to the country’s problems and finds answers to them,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “If he doesn’t, the Democrats will be out on their ear from Congress.”

In a way, though, that approach may clash with another piece of what Obama has promised as president: a “bottom up” approach. Like the community organizer he once was, he plans to tap into the energy and ideas of those he serves, rather than command from on high, he says. Although Obama has presented myriad policy proposals on the main issues of the day – withdraw from Iraq in 16 months, a plan for near-universal health coverage, job creation through investment in clean energy, to name a few – his interest in getting things done may preclude adhering to an ideological line.

And thus, it may be that Obama is being intentionally vague about his approach, other than to call it “post-partisan.” But at least one veteran Democrat questions whether he can reach the Oval Office without giving voters more to go on.

“During the course of the campaign and debates, what people have to find out is, where’s his bottom line?” says Leon Panetta, a retired congressman and Clinton administration alum. “Obama’s all about change and compromise, but … in Washington, the first lesson you learn is you can only compromise from strength. Strength means that people know what you stand for. That’s what he has to define, before the Republicans do.”

Voters yawn when they hear a long list of proposals, and the public pays little or no attention to the party platform. So Obama and the Democrats have to get specific, Mr. Panetta says: “What are the four or five goals that they plan to accomplish?”

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