Not much of a surprise, but a good read:
The stakes were extraordinarily high even before our economy began to spasm and hurtle toward the abyss.
From the start of the campaign, Americans were confronted with profound policy choices about how and when to extricate this nation from a war it initiated, how to temper a looming recession, and whether to continue Bush administration policies that had widened the gap between rich and poor, eroded individual liberties, strengthened presidential power, shifted the Supreme Court to the right, weakened relations with our allies, and delayed action necessary to slow the warming of the planet.
Then, suddenly, the emergence of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression gave Americans an opportunity to see the two major-party candidates under heightened stress. It was a rare chance to see the two senators encounter the type of pressure that comes with the job description of president of the United States.
Even though each ultimately voted for the same solution – the $700 billion bailout – their demeanors could not have been more different. Sen. John McCain magnified the aura of crisis, “suspending” his campaign to return to Washington, where his role in negotiations was at best tangential. Sen. Barack Obama was a portrait of calmness and deliberation, reminding Americans that it is possible for a leader to juggle more than one task at a time.
Obama showed steadiness in a moment of anxiety, with Americans’ portfolios withering and policymakers scrambling to do something – anything – to staunch the panic. The Illinois senator was similarly deliberative – in contrast with McCain’s quick-draw provocation – when Russia invaded Georgia in August.
In those crises, and in the hot lights of three debates, Obama demonstrated a presidential depth and temperament. His performance under the unrelenting scrutiny of the past 20 months has helped quell the “experience issue” for a 47-year-old senator who was elected in 2004.
Still, the breadth of the job of the presidency is such that even the most capable and experienced leader must rely on the advice and judgment of seasoned and specialized appointees. A president’s success is determined not only by his aptitude, instincts and communication skills – which Obama demonstrated throughout the campaign – but also by the quality of the advisers around him. Do they have the mettle to challenge a president? Does he have the self-confidence, and the trust in them, to encourage such challenges?
Obama’s selection of Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate suggests that he would encourage vigorous input in his administration. Biden, 65 and a senator since 1972, has established himself as one of Washington’s pre-eminent authorities on foreign policy – and a man who is famously unafraid to volunteer his opinion.
McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has been largely sequestered from the news media since her selection in late August. She has yet to have anything resembling a traditional news conference, where the full range of her knowledge and views can be explored. Her avoidance of questions and reliance on cue-card talking points in the one vice presidential debate did nothing to allay doubts about whether the 44-year-old governor of two years is capable of assuming the reins of the presidency. Her selection was but an act of political calculation by McCain.
The erstwhile appeal of “maverick” McCain, 72, has been further undercut by his tack to the right on the Bush tax cuts (which he initially resisted), his newfound allegiance to the religious right (in 2000, he called its leaders “agents of intolerance”) and the low tone of his campaign in recent weeks (with attempts to portray Obama as a “pal of terrorists”).
While both candidates speak of “change,” on the issue that matters most to Americans at this moment – the economy – there is no question about which candidate’s policies represents a distinct departure from the approach of the last eight years. McCain’s agenda largely reflects the orthodoxy of deregulation and top-weighted tax cuts that defined Republican politics for almost 30 years. McCain has poured forth more proposals to stimulate the economy with cuts on capital gains taxes and allowing certain early withdrawals on retirement accounts. He also has floated a plan to purchase troubled mortgages to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.
Obama draws on some of the traditional Democratic themes: a more active government role in regulating businesses and trade agreements, more tax relief for the middle class, and stimulating the economy with public-works projects.
Both candidates have been less than forthcoming about how their tax-cut and spending plans might be derailed if the economy continues to tank or the bailout proves less effective and more expensive than anticipated.
At the start of the year, it looked as if the war in Iraq might be the defining issue of 2008. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars – and lost more than 4,100 troops – since President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq more than five years ago. McCain’s stubborn insistence on “victory” before withdrawal runs the danger of extending the quagmire.
Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism has not gone away. As Obama has noted, the invasion of Iraq diverted resources and attention from what should be the main front on terrorism: the rugged terrain along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where al Qaeda and, presumably, its leader, Osama bin Laden, retreated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Beyond Iraq, the president who walks into the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2009, will need to rebuild alliances that have been frayed by the unilateralist approach of the Bush White House. McCain has mocked Obama for his willingness to open dialogue with Iran and other rogue nations, but, again, the go-it-alone, world-opinion-be-damned approach of the past eight years has not made us safer. The challenges of our times – curbing global warming, addressing the global economic crisis, combatting terrorism – require international cooperation.
Throughout a campaign that has been intense – and at some points ugly – Obama has kept his composure and maintained a vision of optimism that has drawn an unparalleled wave of young people into the political process. His policies and his persona have offered hope to a nation that is deeply polarized, swimming in debt, mired in war and ridden with anxiety. He taps into that treasured American reservoir – patriotism – with his calls for sacrifice and national service.
Barack Obama is the right president for these troubled times.