THERE WERE moments on election night when it seemed that sheer adrenalin and good vibrations would be enough to heal what ails this country. But of course the problems are far more intractable than that, and it is important not to overpromise, or risk a crash into deeper cynicism. Still, the energy and engagement of millions of voters, many new to politics, is a precious natural resource that should not be squandered. We hope President-elect Barack Obama and his team find a way to keep this extraordinary mobilization for change alive.
In his election night speech, Obama made an explicit call to continued civic participation. "Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." He has spoken of expanding government support for faith-based initiatives that help the disadvantaged. In September he attended a summit on national service aimed at tapping the inchoate yearning among Americans who would help out if only they knew where to start.
There is no lack of need: in poor schools, where tutors and mentors can be the difference between dropping out and going to college; in neighborhoods, where weatherstripping old homes can save money and energy; in the countless small ways students are cleaning and greening their campuses and local communities. And, of course, overseas, where a hurting world of people living on less than $1 a day is ready to see America in a dramatic new light.
Legislation filed by Senator Edward Kennedy and a Republican colleague, Orrin Hatch, would expand the infrastructure of national service, creating new domestic programs for students and retirees; enlarging the Peace Corps; and establishing a tax break for companies that let workers take days off to volunteer. But to harness the idealism that Obama personally sparked and transport it to a different cause will require the president-elect himself to push for the bill, and for his vast web of e-mail lists and social networks to be redeployed.
It's hard to sustain a political movement after Election Day; just ask Governor Patrick, who inspired a similar network of newly engaged citizens in Massachusetts but allowed it mostly to atrophy after the transition was over.
Still, when Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama in January, she said he was the first candidate since her father's time who could move people to get involved - whether as volunteers or inside government. Obama's enduring legacy will take its own form, but the movement he inspired is exciting because it can be about so much more than electing one man.