McCain vs. Obama
I heard Fareed Zakaria talking with Brain Lehrer on WYNC yesterday on the topic of differences between McCain and Obama on foreign policy. Fareed thought that there was a time when he would have said not much separated the two, but that McCain had taken several positions recently which made him think there were meaningful differences. (The main change seemed to be McCain’s recent idea to rid the G-8 of Russia and China, which is of course plainly counter-productive.)
What struck me though, was how little appreciation Fareed had for the enormous differences between the two candidates. His idea about politics seems to rest on an entirely left-brain approach where one simply compares the competing policy proposals and selects the one which is more closely matches one’s own idea of the best policy proposals. For me, it's far more telling as a determinant of the kind of governance we can expect is the emotional and psychological make-up of the candidates.
I often joke with people that if the people making Campbells Soup ads think they are selling soup, they’ll make unsuccessful ads, whereas if they think they are selling love, redemption, acceptance, etc., they’ll end up selling lots of soup. I don’t think McCain’s or Obama’s policy proposals are what will have the biggest impact on our society, any more than Candidate Bush’s passion for a Patient’s Bill of Rights made much difference to our health care system. Instead, the fundamental character of the person is the biggest determinant of the kind of governance we will get.
To me, the fundamental character of a person is best described in emotional and psychological terms. For example, I think the Current Occupant (h/t Garrison Keillor, of course) suffers from the effects of the terrible trauma he suffered as a child when his younger sister suddenly fell ill and passed away. His feelings of powerlessness in the face of random, inexplicable tragedy – feelings which were steadfastly ignored by his parents – are the direct cause of his misguided efforts to “protect” the US – and his inability to stop talking about the paramount importance of doing so. I think that’s what is behind his idea that he himself is personally responsible for the nation’s safety, and he is surely not going to wait around for other nations to act if doing so jeopardizes his protective (preventive) mission (as he had to do with tragic results as a child). In fact, it is this impatience that leads others to perceive that they are spurned and rejected. They are.
I’m still learning about the early experiences of McCain and Obama, but already I can see a fundamental difference in their characters. McCain seems to me to be primarily about being a victim – a quality he had long before he was so horribly victimized by the North Viet Namese. His high school nickname of “McNasty” is some evidence of this – a person who lashes out to protect himself from too-painful feelings. My guess is that John developed a sense that he was never going to be good enough for his ultra-successful dad – a sense that he was being expected to perform to a very unfair standard. John strikes me as someone who is always probing for acceptance – that’s what those back-of-the-bus bull sessions are: a chance for John to get acceptance.
As a leader, my guess is McCain would be quick to see the US as a victim, a nation that is being subjected to unfair standards. (It is of course true that the US is indeed expected to conform to a standard of behavior higher perhaps than any other nation. My own view is that that expectation is entirely fair. I doubt McCain would see it that way.) McCain would be quick to take offense, and quick to take action to challenge those he sees as confronting him (i.e., holding him to an unfair standard). His famous temper is a testament to the extent he feels slighted unfairly – in other words, victimized.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, could not be more different. I read him as being Mr. Empathy. He is quick to understand others. He readily shares similar experiences. But he does not leave things there. He generally pivots to his own ideas of how to help. His policies seem to be based on fully understanding how those impacted by them will perceive them, the result of his starting with understanding as best he can how others see and feel things.
An Obama foreign policy would be based on understanding the viewpoints of other nations – which by itself would instantly bolster American credibility and prestige. His actions would proceed organically from his understanding of how others perceive their own worlds, and therefore would be far more likely to be welcomed and far more likely to be productive. Domestically, Obama has already begun the process of people making more of an effort to understand the needs and feelings of others, something that the Republican revolution of the last 40 years has specifically targeted (“Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago,” Reagan famously asked). His empathetic nature is quite disruptive to the conventional wisdom.
We have a clear choice, not between competing policies but between competing personalities. We can choose a perpetual victim, someone who is constantly striving for acceptance and spurning those perceived as authorities (people with unfair expectations). Or we can choose an empathizer who can synthesize the needs of various individuals into harmonious compromises and solutions that provide a real chance of achieving success.