We have finally reached the end of an historic (and historically long) election, and as the celebratory atmosphere subsides and the initial tears (of joy and mourning) dry up, we prepare to watch the dramatic transformation of a man from candidate to president. Like the caterpillar to the butterfly, the change is often dramatic, but in the political world it is far less predictable.

This is part of our political process; we recognize that the person running for office is a caricature of the one who will eventually hold the position. Frankly, this is also one of the saving graces of American democracy. Already, if his eloquent concession speech is any indication, John McCain is once again becoming the straight-talking senator that everyone respected before he debased his core maverick-ness in an attempt to appeal to far-right conservatives.

In President-elect Barack Obama, however, we are observing a broader redefinition — that of a whole political philosophy. Despite claims of pie-in-the-sky liberal activism, we are seeing a pragmatic and progressive president taking shape.

Throughout all the campaigning and up to the election, the major criticisms faced by Obama were fear-mongering allegations of socialism and unrealistic idealism. The implication was that a progressive government had goals that were far too lofty and means that were far too invasive. I personally do not find “lofty goals” to be a disagreeable trait, nor do I see a way in which conservatives who backed Bush can criticize anyone about governmental invasiveness (or even spending). But already, less than a week later, we are seeing these criticisms in a new light.

Republicans favor these criticisms as a result of fundamental differences between the two parties. Conservatives have viewed the role of the government in regulating the economy and in assisting citizens with basic needs like health care and education as a necessary evil, something to be kept at a minimum. Every man for himself — isn’t that the American Dream?

But in our current economic downturn, more and more people are realizing the impossibility of the American dream. Capitalism does not allow anyone to do anything; it is a pyramid, in which somebody is always at the top, and many more people are always at the bottom. If the government merely stands back and watches, the pyramid just gets steeper, and equality gets further away.

The McCain camp, fans of standing back and watching, tried to scare people away from an alternative structure by crying “socialism!” — a battle cry intended to blindly frighten people away from a man who wanted to seize their wealth. But it became quickly apparent that Obama did not wish to end capitalism. His goal was simply that of economic equality — the belief in the government’s responsibility to provide its citizens with the most level playing field possible.

The word “socialism” has historically entailed much more than that. A more appropriate term for Obama’s position would be “progressivism;” using the powers we have vested in our government to help everyone achieve happiness, rather than entrusting people’s fates to those who have much from being too greedy.

During times of economic prosperity, many are content to trust the fates to keep their world spinning. But now we are seeing the downfalls of an unchecked economy. SUVs are (or were) living proof that greed trumps long-term planning in business. The housing industry is no different.

And now we have a president-elect who seems keen to keep us focused on long-term solutions. The rhetoric was there all through Obama’s campaign. But it looked a lot less like the activism of the ’60s and more like an activism based in reality.

In his first press conference since the election, Obama’s mood was decidedly somber. Flanked by 17 economic advisors, Obama described goals for the economy that were no less idealistic, but talk of “hope” and “change” was replaced by a need to “think practically” and “make tough decisions.” The announcement of Rahm Emanuel, a no-nonsense political orchestrator, as chief of staff is also indicative of this shift — hope is getting down to business.

Our nation has placed its trust in this man. Almost every single state voted more Democratically than it had in the last election (including Arizona) — the American people, even those maintaining conservative social values, are interested in a government that does more rather than less. In the coming weeks, I believe we will be watching the transformation of idealism into pragmatism. With a majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, Obama now has the opportunity to redefine the practical application of a progressive philosophy.

Byran Kolk can be reached at beakerk@umich.edu.

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