There are those who are disappointed in the U.S. for squandering its chance to lead the world to a better energy future over the past 21 years. There are those who believe that America Inc. should have more prudently managed its finances. Others believe the U.S. never should have gone to Iraq. Finally, there are those who believe that America should have done a better job waging the war, irrespective of why it was started. There are a lot of people disappointed with America these days; they include many Americans.
However, there is something about America that demands great admiration: the current Presidential election. Elections are supposed to offer clear choices. Nobody disputes that this election offers voters a clear choice. In the past, candidates produced clarity by associating with an ideology along the lines of their party affiliation. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have gone beyond traditional politics. Each proposes a different purpose for America. And each of them is fit to lead us to his purpose. Therefore, the choice we face is clear and meaningful, for meaningful can be only what is in pursuit of a purpose.
McCain, a Republican, sees an America devoted to "heroism." The U.S. can defeat its enemies in Iraq, the energy crisis, global warming, and every other calamity that might come along. America would welcome the help of others, but if necessary will do it alone. It has the power but it also has the duty to do so. This is McCain's America.
And the senator from Arizona has the character best fit for that purpose. He is a warrior. Each of us gravitates to one of four ideal characters (BusinessWeek.com, 12/19/07). Paraphrasing the famous German psychologist Carl Jung and the Greek philosopher Plato, I think of the four character types as magicians, sovereigns, lovers, and warriors. McCain has all the characteristics of the warrior and the record of a POW to prove it.
The leadership strengths of a warrior are his focus on the next battle, his ability to hold people accountable, and his propensity for action when he sees the prospect of results. McCain demonstrated enormous focus on Iraq last year, on Gustav only recently. He did hold the Defense Secretary of his own party publicly accountable for a failing policy.
In my view, his finest moment was when he opposed the deployment of the U.S. Marines to Lebanon in 1982. Ronald Reagan made a high-minded decision in committing troops to Lebanon. McCain could not see how this would have a good outcome. Warriors are men and women who focus mostly on the "how."
The antithesis of the warrior is the sovereign. He or she cares passionately about the "why" and the overall direction. The sovereign's strength is focusing on the big picture and judging everything on whether it leads to the completion of the big picture. A sovereign has the ability to inspire people by redefining what they believe is possible and getting them to act differently from others.
Inspiring by Distinction
Senator Obama fits that description perfectly, and his record confirms it. His finest hour was when he famously asked "why" the U.S. should attack Iraq. He inspired people by turning the improbability of his candidacy into his biggest campaign asset. When he graduated from Harvard, with the distinction of having managed the Law Review, he became a community organizer, not a Wall Street lawyer. In his youth, he talked the talk of a future political leader.
Today nobody is accusing Obama of not talking the talk. However, the America about which he speaks so eloquently is different from the America imagined by McCain. The Democratic candidate sees a U.S. respected not because of its power but because of the power of its example. Such an America would have as its purpose excellence, as exemplified by setting the standards in fighting terrorism, gaining energy independence, providing jobs, and building alliances.
What makes the choice in this election clear is that we have in front of us two leaders with well-defined characters. They are the antithesis of each other; the strengths of are the weaknesses of the other.
What makes this election meaningful is that the character of each is a perfect fit to the purpose they clearly espouse. What makes this election critical is that it will define the purpose of the U.S. What makes this election difficult for the American voter is that it requires thinking beyond the headlines. "Heroism" and "Excellence" argue for different sets of values, for different budget priorities, for a different organization of the world. We cannot have it all. The candidates are clear about what they want. In November it will be our turn to show what we want.