I want to follow up on something I had written about last month now that we’re a month and a half into the transition.

Barack Obama clearly subscribes to the premise of a “thick democracy,” in which citizens form the center of the American political process. Citizens are expected to not only participate by casting a vote, but also by upholding other supplemental responsibilities, such as informing themselves, lobbying their representatives in Congress, (or in their state legislature or city/town council), working for a candidate who represents their views or volunteering for their local board of elections. A government based on an active citizen model also relies on people to to publicly serve through the government itself. Peter Levine wrote about the core principle of previous presidencies last month, and he addressed the incoming Obama presidency:

Barack Obama launched his campaign by addressing citizens’ relationship with government and he never stopped talking about it. It even came up in his 30-minute TV ad. I thought this theme was under-reported, even though it is always the most important question about a presidential candidate, and Obama has a distinctive view.

Obama’s core idea is that citizens are at the center of politics. Not private individuals, not the government, not politicians, but people working together in public, on public matters. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2006, he said, “There’s a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. … All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.”

“All of us have a stake in this government … all of us have to step up to the plate.” Obama’s approach here, though not as obvious, takes on the form of his “team of rivals” approach to Cabinet-nominating. His rivals in this case are those Americans — many Reagan Democrats — who saw the bloated bureaucracy paralyze America in the 1970s. These citizens decided in 1980 that government should exist in the smallest form possible. Obama knew he needed to secure the investment of these cynics, understanding that it’s much harder to criticize something when you’ve been a part of it. On November 4, millions of new voters took the first step in enlisting in Obama’s effort. And since then, Obama’s message of responsibility and the need to take ownership seems to have worked, albeit an assist from the putrid economy helped:

For those of us finishing school in the next few years, there’s no denying that the U.S. job market has slimmed down–it shed a massive quarter-million private-sector jobs in November. But there is one sector that is beginning to fatten up–and young people are starting to take notice. You can see that the federal goverment is growing by taking a look at the size of the Plum Book, an inventory of positions soon to be vacated by the Bush administration and open for hire. This year, it is about 1,000 jobs heavier than it was in 2004.

Over the past eight years, the government, neither welcoming nor respected among progressive young people, hasn’t been a very attractive prospective employer for them. Understandably, when I’ve asked my friends about where they want to work after graduation, I get the typical responses: an investment firm, a hospital, a university, a small business, etc. Only a few have said they want to be a politician, and fewer still have said they want to be a government agency employee or a committee staffer. Just like my progressive friends, I ran from government as if it were a toxic asset.

But things have changed since Obama’s election and the financial meltdown. Now, it’s private jobs that look poisonous, and public employment that smells sweet.

Just look at all the applications the Obama administration is receiving. Granted, any change in administration is bound to bring in new blood, but this time it is different, no doubt. As of this week, the Obama transition web site, change.gov, has received 331,000 job applications for about 3,000 positions. Compare this to the mere 44,000 political job requests Bush received before he took office in 2001, and the 125,000 Clinton received before he entered the White House in 1993.

Obama’s new “core principle” found within his approaching presidency combined with the slumping private sector means that we’re going to see a kind of participatory politics Millennial activists like us can only dream of. The next few years (and hopefully decades) will see Americans engaged in rebuilding efforts, sometimes literally through projects like Habitat for Humanity and other service opportunities, and sometimes figuratively, by running for office and staffing local, state, and federal government. This new spirit of civic activism meets its match in the Millennial Generation, which is coming of age at just the right time to lead it.

If the media’s looking for a story, they’d be well-served to ignore this Blagojevich mess. The story of the next few decades is found in the approaching perfect storm that’s poised to transform our politics, government, and civic health.

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