Both candidates for the presidency have compelling personal narratives. Mr. Obama represents the fulfilment of the American dream. As he is the son of a black Kenyan and a white woman from Kansas, his election would do more than any single act to remove the stain of America's racially troubled past. John McCain's war record as a navy pilot and prisoner of war is one of conspicuous bravery. He emerged from six years' imprisonment and torture in a North Vietnamese hellhole with his honour intact.
Throughout their lives, both men have demonstrated the qualities of leadership. But during the arduous campaign for the presidency, only one of them has shown the capacity to grow. For all the promise that he represented at the start of his long journey, when he announced on Feb. 10, 2007 that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president, Mr. Obama is a much better leader today. He defied all predictions, to surpass Hillary Clinton. Each test he faced along the way has revealed a new and greater depth of intelligence, judgment and humanity. For example, the claims that he was an affirmative action candidate, and the controversy sparked by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, only served to strengthen his candidacy. In response, Mr. Obama gave his speech on race, "A More Perfect Union," now considered among the greatest political speeches in U.S. history.
That John McCain is a courageous man there can be no doubt. He is a principled man, too. He has a substantial depth of foreign-policy experience. He worked to fashion bipartisan support on immigration reform and caps on carbon emissions. He argued for the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and struggled against coercive interrogation. He understands the importance of free trade to the U.S. economy. He is a candidate who would, on paper, seem ready to step directly into the job of president, a man whose learning curve would by virtue of his long service be indiscernible. Yet in direct contrast to Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain has grown out of the job.
He has campaigned as the safe choice, but has proved to be impetuous, excitable and lacking in judgment. Examples abound: The bellicose assurance made to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that "today, we are all Georgians." His weird riffing off of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann, "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran." His odd behaviour "suspending" his campaign to deal with the financial crisis in the days preceding the first presidential debate, only to un-suspend it two days later. These actions all militate against the claim that he's a steady hand.
But most damaging of all was his decision to pick Sarah Palin as a running mate. It can only be viewed as an act of extreme impulsiveness, an effort to put short-term political advantage ahead of the national interest, achieving an effect of surprise and novelty. It was a decision that lacked even basic due diligence. Mr. McCain is not a young man. He has imperfect health. By placing Ms. Palin next in the order of succession, he effectively put all of his own weaknesses in the display window, and virtually disqualified himself from the presidency.
Instead of engendering confidence that should accompany his long experience, Mr. McCain has provided cause to wonder just how serious-minded he really is. This has only been compounded by an erratic campaign that has veered from quasi-presidential posturing to vicious attacks. Sadly, Mr. McCain has only diminished his standing during this campaign. The character he demonstrated from the Hanoi Hilton to the Senate of the U.S. went missing in action. To his personal narrative, then, as navy pilot, POW, U.S. congressman and senator, and Republican presidential nominee, it is necessary to add another: cowboy. And the people of the United States, indeed the people of the world, are weary of a cowboy in the White House.
Mr. Obama, in contrast, has demonstrated that he possesses the character and the temperament necessary in a president. In a perfect world, he would have had another term in the Senate, or some executive experience, to hone his domestic policy-making skills and to expand his knowledge of foreign affairs. But there is nothing in Mr. Obama's conduct to suggest any leap of faith is required. He has been cool throughout the long campaign, gathering authority with every passing week. Mr. Obama has correctly argued that U.S. military attention must focus on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the border regions of neighbouring Pakistan. He has called for a fairer tax structure, including for middle-income Americans, who benefited very little from the growth of the past decade. His pronouncements in response to the subprime fiasco are cautious, his instincts are consultative, as they should be. There is every indication his election-year posturing in favour of renegotiating NAFTA is likely to be quietly dropped. Mr. Obama is not a socialist, he is not a radical, he is a pragmatist, a mainstream Democrat.
Nobody can ever be truly ready to be U.S. president. It is a high office that carries an enormous burden of responsibility. But Mr. Obama keeps showing that he can be equal to it. He embodies the hope that a dispirited, injured, but still great country can regain its form. With his election the U.S. should once again come to be seen for what it has so often been, a force for good in the world.
More than that, a victory for Mr. Obama would be a historic step toward what he called, alluding to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, "the unfinished business of perfecting our union." His election would finally breach the racial divide that has marked the country since its founding.