Exactly one year ago this week, the USC campus was abuzz in political activity. Both major political parties had just finished their conventions, Barack Obama and John McCain had both hit the campaign trail in earnest and the entire Trojan community was caught up in the excitement of a historic presidential election to a degree that had not been seen in decades.
What a difference a year makes.
Seven months after being sworn into office, President Obama’s sky-high approval ratings from voters have settled down to earth, and he faces growing opposition to both his domestic and foreign policy priorities. Republicans have begun to find their voice in opposition to the Obama agenda, but they are still only beginning the much more difficult process of formulating an alternative set of policy proposals for the nation. There’s no question that the exhilaration of the campaign trail is difficult to reproduce during the arduous process of governing, but particularly after the thrilling peaks of the 2008 presidential campaign, the valleys of 2009 seem particularly steep.
The challenge for USC students — and for young people across the country — is to rev up the levels of energy and enthusiasm we saw during last year’s campaign, perhaps not to the same dizzying heights of an election season, but to a level necessary to help enact the policy changes that energized a campus — and a generation — last year. As much time and effort that proponents of both major party candidates poured into the campaigns, winning an election is a easy task compared to the challenge of making necessary policy change. A political campaign is ultimately nothing more than a means to an end, an important step toward achieving progress for a community, a nation or a planet. The real work has still barely begun.
Campaigns are exciting, but so is the victory that comes from resolving a community’s health care, education or public safety challenges. If either party’s supporters were to muster even a fraction of the enthusiasm for these policy debates in the months after the election that they displayed for their candidates in the months preceding that vote, the result would be felt at every level of government. Politicians know that most voters quickly lose interest once the campaign is past, but those who stay involved can have a disproportionate impact.
The USC community — from President Sample on down — has demonstrated a commendable willingness to stay involved. The number of students and faculty members who devote their time and efforts toward transforming the neighborhoods that surround campus is nothing short of inspirational. But a lesson that we all should have learned from the 2008 election is that even this level of volunteerism and community engagement must work hand in hand with broader political involvement. There are only so many at-risk youth that even the most dedicated of us can teach to read, only so many shut-ins to whom even the most tireless of us can deliver meals. The challenge of enacting widespread change begins with political debate that leads to policy resolution and ultimately, to real-world change.
Just as the USC campus is characterized by the countless efforts to improve our community, it is also the scene of dozens of gatherings — both scheduled and impromptu — where just these types of political and policy dialogues take place every day. Starting tomorrow, the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and the Daily Trojan, in partnership with the USC College Democrats, USC College Republicans and the Political Student Assembly, will kick off our third semester of Students Talk Back political lunches, where off-campus policy and political experts join students to discuss the issues being debated in Washington, Sacramento and across the nation. We hope you’ll join us for free food, smart and civil dialogue and the chance to be part of the change for which we all fought in last year’s election.
Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. The semester’s first Students Talk Back political lunch takes place tomorrow in the Senior Commons Room (enter through EVK cafeteria). The lunch buffet begins at 11:30 a.m., and the political discussion will run from noon-1:00 p.m.