Time’s Person of the Year

TIME’S PERSON OF THE YEAR…. When presidents win their first national election, they tend to win Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” award. Looking over the list, it’s actually pretty common: FDR in ’32, Truman in ’48, LBJ in ’64, Carter in ’76, Reagan in ’80, Clinton in ’92, and Bush in 2000.

With this in mind, it’s not too big a surprise that Barack Obama won (and obviously deserved) the honor this year.

It’s unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama’s face on the cover. He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago — that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn’t sure Obama had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order. Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth — the one about boundless opportunity — has plenty of juice left in it.

But crisis has a way of ushering even great events into the past. As Obama has moved with unprecedented speed to build an Administration that would bolster the confidence of a shaken world, his flash and dazzle have faded into the background. In the waning days of his extraordinary year and on the cusp of his presidency, what now seems most salient about Obama is the opposite of flashy, the antithesis of rhetoric: he gets things done. He is a man about his business — a Mr. Fix It going to Washington. That’s why he’s here and why he doesn’t care about the furniture. We’ve heard fine speechmakers before and read compelling personal narratives. We’ve observed candidates who somehow latch on to just the right issue at just the right moment. Obama was all these when he started his campaign: a talented speaker who had opposed the Iraq war and lived a biography that was all things to all people. But while events undermined those pillars of his candidacy, making Iraq seem less urgent and biography less relevant, Obama has kept on rising. He possesses a rare ability to read the imperatives and possibilities of each new moment and organize himself and others to anticipate change and translate it into opportunity.

The real story of Obama’s year is the steady march of seemingly impossible accomplishments: beating the Clinton machine, organizing previously marginal voters, harnessing the new technologies of democratic engagement, shattering fundraising records, turning previously red states blue — and then waking up the day after his victory to reinvent the presidential-transition process in the face of a potentially dangerous vacuum of leadership.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel, appearing on NBC this morning, said, “The Person of the Year was, in effect, invented for Barack Obama. He’s a transformational figure. He has done something extraordinary.”

The runners-up, in case you were wondering, were Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Sarah Palin, Chinese director Zhang Yimou, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.