(Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a commentary written by President Joseph G. Lehman that appears in the Winter 2010 issue of Impact, the Mackinac Center’s quarterly newsletter.)

We already know two things for which the Obama presidency will be remembered, and I am grateful for both of them. First, his election emphatically marked a new frontier that pushed back the boundaries of obdurate racism. Second, his policy mistakes and political overreach ignited the country’s political center to action over ruinous economic problems too long ignored.

About the second, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto might have said President Obama “awakened a sleeping giant.” His campaign rhetoric set the bar so high that when his policies deepened and prolonged the economic crisis, the electorate responded as if obeying a political version of Newton’s law of equal and opposite reaction.

Partisan Republicans reacted as expected. And those who believed Mr. Obama was too timidly borrowing, spending and nationalizing industries also reacted. But the big surprise was a big swath of the political center energizing in opposition to his massive expansions of government.

The Sam Adams Alliance surveyed Tea Party leaders and found no party has a lock on that new movement. Most of the leaders felt aligned with the Republican Party, but 28 percent said they were politically independent and another 11 percent identified with the Tea Party movement itself. That breakdown reflects the center-right inclinations of the nation as a whole.

Perhaps most importantly, more than 75 percent had never before been involved significantly in politics. Are the hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers the awakened giant?

I hope so. For decades, our elected representatives in Washington and Lansing have been growing government at the expense of our freedom, dignity and prosperity. The Mackinac Center and our sister organizations have been sounding the alarm. We’ve carefully and persistently built the intellectual case that high taxes and spending levels are unsustainable and even immoral.

While we won some victories, we lost other important ones. Ironically, decades of remarkable economic growth in spite of poor policy covered a multitude of policy sins. But now that growth has become anemic, those sins are in full view to more people than ever before.

For a bright student whose parents don’t notice that he neglects his homework, the report card eventually comes home with a grade of “F” that does get Mom and Dad’s attention. The failing mark will likely trigger better study habits or start a long slide to academic failure. While no one wishes for a failing grade, one may be grateful for the chance to turn around a failing situation.

Bright students do sometimes fail in school. Great, and good, nations do fall. Along the way, there are usually warning signs and missed chances to turn things around. I’m grateful if President Obama has illuminated such an opportunity for us.

Candidate Obama said about his supporters in 2008, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” For those of us dedicated to limited government and free markets, who have long sought a strong social movement to undergird our ideas, it looks like the newly awakened Tea Partiers might be the ones we’ve been waiting for.