Pragmatic, hopeful Obama

Posted Oct. 24, 2008, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:26 a.m.

As an Independent, I’ve voted both Republican and Democratic in recent presidential elections and approached this year following three candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.

As the year has unfolded, however, I have come down firmly on the side of Obama. Here’s why.

Obama is steady and really smart. He is pragmatic and bases his decisions on data rather than ideology. This summer I read his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and was blown away by his level-headed analysis of the current state of our country and what we must do to address the daunting challenges we face. I also like it that he’s a guy of modest means and background; “middle class” isn’t a label to him, it’s who he is.

Obama’s management of this campaign has demonstrated extraordinary executive ability. In effect, he has assembled and run a half-billion dollar start-up business in less than two years. Strategy, finance, tactics, communication, staffing — all done brilliantly and under incredible pressure of time and events.

Obama has a firm grasp of the key issues of national security and foreign policy. He was one of the few in either party to see the Iraq war as a mistake from the beginning and that we had dangerously taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. He understands the complexity of the war on terror and that this struggle must involve diplomacy (with unfriendly as well as friendly nations) as well as confrontation if we are to prevail.

The recent financial crisis has given us an extraordinary opportunity to compare the two candidates in terms of judgment and decision-making. Obama has been calm, consistent, and focussed; McCain has been all over the lot.

Another example is the two men’s approach to the most important decision a presidential candidate has to make — the selection of a running mate. After a long process, Obama picked Joe Biden whom he knew well and respected. By all reports, McCain chose Sarah Palin after two 20-minute interviews six months apart. I spent more time than this picking out my truck.

The last thing we need right now is a president who makes decisions on impulse or instinct.

Obama’s policy prescriptions are better. If the past eight years have proven anything, it’s that tax cuts for the wealthy don’t do much for the economy as a whole, and yet that’s exactly what John McCain is proposing as the centerpiece of his economic plan. Obama is also proposing tax cuts, but they are focussed on the middle class where they will actually do some good.

The tone of a campaign says a lot about the candidate. I noticed a headline recently — “100 percent of McCain ads now negative.” In 2000, John McCain himself observed, “Sooner or later people are going to figure out that if all you run is negative attack ads, you don’t have much of a vision for the future, or you’re not ready to articulate it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Obama’s election would go a long way toward restoring our battered image abroad. This is not just a “feel-good” idea; the fact is that in this interconnected world, we need the help, support and good will of other countries to deal with very real global threats, whether economic, environmental or military.

Obama has better advisers and turned to people like Warren Buffett, Paul Volcker and Larry Summers in the financial crisis. McCain’s principal economic adviser, at least until lately, was Phil Gramm, arguably the one individual most responsible for what has just happened to our economy.

Also, McCain’s top campaign staff is full of Capitol Hill lobbyists. As my mother used to say, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Obama’s message and style is hopeful and inclusive. He understands that our problems won’t be solved by the extreme partisanship that has characterized our recent history. Although McCain has shared this tendency in the past, his campaign this year has relied heavily on the politics of fear and division. This just isn’t the McCain I respected and admired 10 years ago.

We really do need change. There is no question that Obama represents a different approach to governing than we have experienced in the last eight years. And although McCain is talking change, his policy proposals — from economics to foreign affairs — are amazingly close to those of the Bush administration. And change isn’t four more years of what we’ve had.

Throughout our history, tough times have called forth our greatest leaders, often from unlikely places and improbable circumstances. And this year, it’s happened again. I believe that Barack Obama is a once in a generation leader — and will make a great president.

Angus King is a former governor of Maine.

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