“There are thousands of voters … who realize only too well the danger of electing a candidate who seeks to thrill with his oratory, to bring a message of hope and cheer, without making specific promises or pointing to the way out of the labyrinth.”
Those were the words printed in an editorial on this page on Oct. 30, 1932. A week before perhaps the most significant election in our nation’s history, the editors of this newspaper had yet to make up their minds about a decision that, in retrospect, seems laughably obvious: Franklin D. Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover?
Our hesitation was understandable. The nation was buried in an immense financial crisis. The world was an unsafe place: A man named Adolf Hitler was beginning to cast a dark cloud over Germany.
The challenger to incumbent President Hoover spoke with eager, fearless positivity about all this nation could be. But it sounded too good to believe. What did this one-term governor of New York really know about managing a country in crisis? Shouldn’t we instead choose the man who has experience — the incumbent president who, even if he made mistakes, at least had the benefit of learning from them?
Seventy-six years later, we return to a similar question.
Today we’re told that Barack Obama is too young, too inexperienced, too idealistic and too naïve to be president. We’re told he’ll be in way over his head, that he won’t be able to manage the crises that will inevitably emerge, and that he will make the United States vulnerable and weak. Some of this rings true — Obama is young and his record is hardly distinguished. Nevertheless, he is exactly what this nation needs today, the very thing it needed in 1932 — a leader.
Obama catapulted himself into this race with a speech in 2004, a speech that resonated with a weary nation in a much greater way than Obama could ever have anticipated. That happened not only because it was a brilliant piece of oratory, but because it, like Obama’s campaign, rejected the ugliness of identity politics that has been a key part of American life since the 1960s. In the process, he has stripped away the stupid, bizarre definition of a “real America” that the Republican Party has exploited since Sept. 11, 2001. This matters.
But critics mistake this appeal. They argue that Obama is an empty vessel: He claims to be anything and everything to get elected, they say, but doesn’t have the fortitude to stand firm or follow through on anything. That may have been a legitimate criticism early on, when Obama’s campaign consisted of too much style and too little substance. But if Obama has shown anything in the course of his long campaign, it is that he is a quick learner. His campaign has come a long way in defining a platform that will work for this country.
Electoral pressures have dampened how outspoken Obama can be on issues of poverty, taxes and health care; even promising a tax cut for the middle class has gotten him in trouble. Connecting the dots he dares lay down in this impossibly oppressive political climate, though, we can tell Obama understands what is wrong in our country and what needs to be done to fix it.
He knows health care for every American is long overdue; he knows the solution to our energy problems cannot just come from the ocean floor off Florida’s coasts; he knows that the horrifying poverty Hurricane Katrina revealed in New Orleans exists in communities across this country; he knows that terrorism cannot just be combated with bombs, but must be fought with international cooperation; he knows the war in Iraq was misguided from the start and must be ended as soon as safely possible.
It will shock no one to learn that this page endorses Barack Obama for president. We do so, however, almost without another option. Had his opponent, John McCain, spared even a single one of the qualities we once admired him for — independence, compassion, reason — this would have been a more difficult choice to make. It’s unfortunate that a once-respectable leader like McCain has fallen so far to become “electable.”
Needless to say, McCain’s political ploy has failed. He may have been able to convince centrist Republicans to vote for him in the primary (a race in which we expectantly endorsed him), but it’s clear now that the Republican candidate is not the independent, maverick or leader he claims to be. His are the policies of the past eight years, policies with which he himself once disagreed.
As unfortunate as the political neutering of maverick McCain is, more despicable is the erosion of his ideals about running clean campaigns. He has tried to build his entire campaign on appeals to the worst in Americans. In a shameless attempt to exploit identity politics, McCain introduced into this race the dangerously ignorant Sarah Palin as his running mate — a woman who calls her opponent a friend of terrorists and questions the “American-ness” of any town with more than three stoplights, yet still manages to sleep at night.
The nastiest things that have been said in this campaign have come since the introduction of Palin as McCain’s running mate. But she is only his attack dog; he has the power to call her off, but chooses not to do it. John McCain says he laments the nasty, negative turn this campaign has taken in recent weeks, yet he chooses to do nothing.
We’ve learned a lot about these candidates during the past 20 months, especially about how they handle pressure and crises. When his electoral prospects looked bleak in his primary showdown with the Clinton political machine, Obama showed his true colors — he remained strong and never succumbed to desperation or hostility. McCain, on the other hand, despite all his talk of positive campaigns, has sanctioned attack ads that would make Lee Atwater blush, and continues to blame Obama for somehow making him do it.
Perhaps the most telling moment of this campaign came a few weeks ago, when McCain worked himself into a huff over the financial crisis he could no longer deny. He promised to halt his campaign, immediately fly to Washington and broker a bailout agreement. He arrived hours too late, solved nothing and picked up his campaign almost as if nothing happened.
Obama, on the other hand, showed poise and patience. Neither he nor McCain knew exactly what to do when the crisis hit, but Obama was the one who remained calm and rational. The last four years have shown us the profound problems that can arise with an impulsive, trigger-happy president. McCain isn’t George W. Bush, but his impulsiveness suggests he would make a lot of the same mistakes.
Obama has his faults, and it may be tempting for some to choose (misguided) experience over a new, upbeat idealist. But imagine where this world would be if Americans had made that mistake in 1932.
We endorse BARACK OBAMA for president of the United States today not because we believe he is the next FDR, but because we recognize that the two men share the two greatest qualities an American president and the leader of the free world can have — the audacity to tell the truth about what ails America and the wisdom to find the right solutions.