Obama and McCain – Narratives, Issues, and Trade Offs

There is no doubt that in the 2008 American Election campaign the two candidates Barrack Obama and John McCain reflect starkly different   ideological approaches to the major economic, political and social issues facing the nation.  And yet equally the election involves the personal narratives of two men – John McCain and Barrack Obama. Which narrative is ultimately more compelling to the electorate is one of the central issues on which the outcome of the campaigns will turn.

For many Americans Obama’s personal story is the achievement of the American dream. Born in 1961 as the child of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, Obama rose to become an editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, then US Senator in 2004 and now the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.  The two most prominent themes of his candidacy are “change” and “hope”.  The present mood in the country given political scandals, partisan fighting, and economic troubles is that “Washington is not working”. In this political environment   the theme of change has struck a chord.

Moreover, to a nation that has historically suffered deeply from the wounds of racial hatreds, and more recently from the passions of partisan politics, Obama speaks of an America no longer divided into black and white, nor divided into “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democrat), but of one America . Obama thus expresses a longing for healing the painful divisions of the past and he gives voice to the desire for unity that many Americans feel.

John McCain also has a powerful personal narrative built around the values of honor, duty, and patriotic self-sacrifice. Born into a distinguished military family McCain s volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War as a Navy pilot.  In 1967 his plane was shot down, and the severely wounded McCain and was captured by the North Vietnamese.  McCain was offered the opportunity for early release because of his famous family, but refused to abandon his comrades or risk bringing shame to his country. In total spent over 5 years in Communist prison camps – much of it enduring torture and solitary confinement.  After his release in 1973, McCain entered politics eventually being elected to the House of Representatives during the Reagan administration in 1982, and later to the Senate in 1986 where he has served since as one of the country’s most prominent Senators. McCain is almost universally recognized even by his opponents as a true American hero, and his strength of character and independence of judgment make him widely popular.


Turning to issues of substance – there are really three broad issues of importance in this presidential election cycle – the economy, foreign policy, and the Supreme Court.  Of these the Economy is probably for most Americans the single most important.  A crisis in the housing market caused by overinvestment in high risk, subprime mortgages has devalued the homes of millions of Americans, devastating the real estate industry, affecting the whole credit system and producing chaos on Wall Street. Democrats blame the Bush administration and Republicans for their policies of deregulation; some however blame the Democrats with distorting the competitive mechanisms of the free market through Government sponsored loan agencies like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.  Whatever the truth of the matter bad news on Wall Street gives Obama a political advantage since John McCain represents the party in power – and the party in power gets the blame for economic downturns. As far as possible Obama hopes to gain support from the economically disaffected by portraying a McCain administration as simply “four more years of Bush.”


In addition to the housing and financial crises, Americans have felt the pinch as oil prices have skyrocketed. In America which is very much an automobile culture virtually no one can escape the economic costs of high gas prices. Moreover since  oil costs add to the heating and transportations costs of businesses there are serious inflationary pressures involved and the fear that these costs may end up passed along to the consumer. On energy policy McCain may have a significant political advantage.   There is a general agreement among both candidates that one critical problem facing the nation is dependency on foreign and especially Middle Eastern oil – it is in how to achieve this goal that the candidates differ sharply.  Obama is largely constrained by the powerful environmental movement within the Democratic Party. Many environmentalists see petroleum as a threat to the climate and ecology, and view calls for more oil drilling as a threat to wildlife preserves Obama’s proposals have focused on the development of alternative sources of energy.   However, with oil at levels near or above $100 a barrel, and nearly all Americans feeling the pain, McCain idea of drilling to increase supply and bring prices down is broadly popular.


The second broad issue is foreign policy. The American left – like the left around the world – views Bush’s foreign policy with disdain.  They view the Iraq war in particular as an unnecessary unilateral adventure which has exacted huge costs to the United States in blood, treasure, and international good will.  Obama’s consistent opposition to the Iraq war and calls for withdrawal and is therefore broadly popular with his left wing base. His foreign policy posture stresses diplomacy, building international alliances and working through international institutions like the UN. But Obama has very little experience in foreign policy. We live in a time when the world has become very dangerous – the Iraq war is still ongoing, the war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban is heating up and threatens to spill over into an unstable and nuclear armed Pakistan, Iran is pursuing a nuclear program and threatening Israel, Russia’s invasion of Georgia evokes the possibility of a new cold war, and the rising power of China is reshaping global geopolitics. In such a security environment many Americans are more comfortable with someone like McCain – a decorated war hero with decades of experience in foreign policy.


The last issue to consider is the Supreme Court whose members are appointed to life time positions by the President.  Many of the most divisive social and moral debates hinge on its composition. This court is the final locus of appeal for the whole land and rules on whether statutes and legal practices conform to the US Constitution. Conservatives in general are originalists meaning that they believe the constitution should be interpreted according to its original intent as understood by the Founding Fathers. They generally oppose the creation either of new rights not specifically listed in the constitution, or the expansion of government powers beyond those specifically assigned in the document. Liberals however tend to argue for the idea of the living constitution – according to this principle to interpret the constitution we must apply contemporary and evolving standards. They tend to argue for more expansive rights and government powers than those explicitly enumerated. Abortion is perhaps the biggest and most divisive issue impacted by this debate. 


Conservatives generally view abortion as an attack on innocent human life. However, the Supreme Court in 1973 severely restricted the power of states to prohibit abortion declaring it to be a constitutional right based on the right to privacy. Originalists charged that neither the right to abortion – nor even the right to privacy -was enumerated in the text of the constitution, while living constitutionalists argued that the text must be read in the light of contemporary values not those of the 18th century. Other issues include the interpretation of the so called “commerce clause” –liberals tend to read the clause as giving the Federal Government broad powers to regulate the economy while conservatives read it very restrictively. A large number of social issues that inspire great passion – the right to own guns, the legality of pornography, homosexual marriage, the detention of unlawful combatants, prayer in the public schools, etc… – are likely to be decided by the courts. Currently of the 9 justices four are considered liberal and four are considered conservatives with Anthony Kennedy a moderate holding the balance. The next president however may have the power to reshape the court which will influence the nation for decades to come.



 Each of the candidates of course brings various advantages and disadvantages to the table.  Each naturally carries with them the demographic strengths of their respective bases of support –McCain will do well among libertarians and those in the business community concerned with taxes and regulation, among rural voters, the military and those concerned with national security, and religious conservatives concerned with issues like abortion, the drive for same sex marriage, and the perception of moral decay. Obama has a strong base of support among college students, blacks and other minorities, urban voters, and social liberals.  Many of the strengths of the candidates can also be perceived as weaknesses depending on perspective critics will highlight the fact that he was elected to the Senate only in 2004 and has spent much of his term campaigning for the presidency.  In the face of the current challenges many question whether Obama has the experience to lead. McCain on the other hand has extensive experience in foreign and domestic policy gained from some 25 years in Congress. Critics however charge that McCain represents the “old Washington politics”, and would be basically a continuation of the Bush white house. For these people Obama’s argument for change and a new generation in Washington is powerful. And there are also concerns about his age with McCain already at 72.



Interestingly through their vice-presidential picks each of the candidates sought to compensate for their weaknesses, though in different ways each also reduced their own strengths. In short the vice-presidential picks were trade offs. Obama chose as a running mate Joseph Biden a consummate Washington insider with more years in Congress than John McCain, and an extensive foreign policy resume. This may make voters feel more secure voting for Obama – but it also weakens Obama’s position as a representative of change. McCain on the other hand chose a surprise Sarah Palin the little known governor of Alaska.  Nominating the first women republican nominee for Vice-President McCain positions himself well with voters who something new and have concerns about his age. Yet McCain’s argument that his ticket represents experience is arguably undermined by choosing a relatively young woman with virtually no foreign policy background.


At the moment however McCain seems to be have made the better choice. Sarah Palin has become a media sensation and has strongly energized the Republicans in the way that Obama has energized the Democrats. Meanwhile Palin holds appeal to virtually every demographic that McCain sought to appeal to.  As a woman Palin appeals to some Democratic and independent women who are embittered by the defeat of Hillary Clinton which they see as a defeat for women. As a conservative Christian with a pro-life record, Palin has helped to energize the conservatives behind McCain – a candidate they previously viewed with mistrust. As a small town hunter whose husband has a union background she appeals to a population Obama has had difficulty with – small town, working class voters (Obama had made controversial comments about small town Americans as clinging to God and guns out of bitterness). At the moment to Palin pick seems to be a brilliant political chess move. Before the Palin, McCain seemed to be trailing in many polls but after the Palin nomination McCain surged ahead. Subsequently however the financial crisis on Wall Street reversed these gains and gave Obama a slight lead. Much will now depend on how the economy holds up over the next few weeks and how well the candidates are able to articulate their respective visions – especially in the upcoming debates –.




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