America's crisis election: What’s at stake for Obama, McCain?

By Joseph S. Nye

CAMBRIDGE - On November 4, Americans will elect their 44th president amidst the worst financial turmoil the country has known since the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Both candidates are United States senators with little experience as executives, so their ability to manage the crisis has become a central issue in the election.

At the beginning of the campaign, many observers predicted that Iraq would be the major issue in 2008. Instead, it is the financial crisis. In principle, this should help Barack Obama and the Democrats, because polls show them stronger on economic issues, whereas Republicans and John McCain do better on security issues. After the Republican convention, polls showed McCain ahead in early September, but after the financial meltdown, Obama took the lead.

Obama (L) and McCain shake hands at the conclusion of the second presidential debate at Belmont University's Curb Event Center on October 7. AFP

Although both men have warily embraced the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector, the contrasts between the two men are sharp. Obama is not only the first African-American nominee of a major party, but also one of the youngest candidates ever. McCain has experience as a naval aviator and more than two decades in the Senate. If elected, he would be the oldest incoming president.

The two men differ in temperament as well as experience. McCain is a man of strong traditional values who prides himself on his willingness to act quickly and decisively, which he sought to do during the negotiations on the bailout by suspending his campaign to return to Washington. That effort appears to have backfired, because the Republicans that he leads initially balked at passing the legislation.

But McCain has shown himself to be resilient. In 2007, many people wrote off his campaign, but he had the skills to resurrect it and capture the Republican nomination. His choice of Alaska's Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate shook up the presidential campaign.

Obama, while an inspirational orator, has shown a cool and calm demeanor in responding to both the financial crisis and the turbulence of political campaigning. When embarrassed by comments made by the pastor of his church, he delivered an exceptional speech about race in America. If anything, some of Obama's Democratic supporters wish he would show more emotion in responding to criticism.

One should be careful, however, about reading too much into national opinion polls measuring the candidates' popular support. American presidents are elected by an Electoral College in which each state votes in proportion to the number of members it has in Congress. Since even the smallest states have two senators, this leads to overrepresentation of lightly populated Western states that tend to vote Republican.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush prevailed in the electoral college. Thus, the two candidates' campaigns are focusing heavily on a dozen or so states in which voters are closely divided and could sway the electoral college outcome. Each campaign is now desperately trying to gauge the impact of the financial crisis on these battleground states.

Not only does the Electoral College confuse predictions based on national opinion polls, but there is also the possibility of surprises which can lead to last-minute reversals. A mistake in a presidential debate can turn the tide of public opinion overnight, as happened to President Gerald Ford in his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Conversely, Ronald Reagan's performance in his debate with Carter in 1980 is often credited with his victory.

Another event that could turn the tables would be an "October surprise" associated with terrorism, which could switch the agenda from the financial crisis back to security, the Republicans' stronger suit. In 2004, shortly before the election, Osama bin Laden released a video tape that may have helped President Bush defeat Senator John Kerry. From bin Laden's point of view, Bush's policies were more useful for his efforts to recruit supporters than Kerry's might have been. One would assume that Obama would prove even more unsettling to bin Laden.

A recent BBC poll of 22 countries found that if the world could vote, Obama would win in a landslide. The pro-Obama margin varied from 82% in Kenya (where Obama's father was born) to 9% in India. But Americans do not like outside interference in their elections. When Obama attracted a crowd of 200,000 to a speech in Berlin last summer, Republicans criticized him as an elitist who appeals to crowds overseas but not to blue-collar workers at home.

On the other hand, in a September poll that asked Americans to rate a series of foreign-policy goals for the next president, 83% ranked "improving America's standing in the world" as most important. And certainly the election of the first African-American as president would do wonders to restore the soft power that the Bush administration squandered over the past eight years.

Some people worry that Obama might be good for American soft power, but not for its hard power. Machiavelli famously said that it is more important for a prince to be feared than to be loved. Machiavelli may be correct, but we sometimes forget that the opposite of love is not fear, but hatred. And Machiavelli made it clear that hatred is something a prince should carefully avoid.

When the exercise of hard power undercuts soft power, it makes leadership more difficult - as Bush found out after the invasion of Iraq. Both McCain and Obama possess impressive hard-power political and organizational skills; otherwise, they would not be where they are today. But when it comes to the soft power skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication, Obama outranks McCain. Whether that will sway American voters wary of financial turmoil on November 4 remains to be seen.

(Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author most recently of The Powers to Lead.)

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times

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America's crisis election: What’s at stake for Obama, McCain?


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