Presidential candidates’ lives inform their judgment
August 24, 2008
The political convention season begins today. Amid all of the hoopla, confetti, balloons, and mega audiences, we will get a large dose of the biographies of the two candidates.
Their life stories will become as familiar to us as the tale of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. We will hear stories about John McCain and Barack Obama, how their life experiences have shaped their judgment calls, and how this would indicate what sort of presidents they would be.
We will hear about John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war and his bravery and suffering. This turned him from the life he led before Vietnam when he was an underachiever in a family of admirals. It gave him seriousness and purpose to his life and it motivated him to get active in politics so he could help the military.
We will hear about Barack Obama’s childhood, being abandoned by his Kenyan father, raised by a single mother and grandparents, a bi-racial child in a Kansas-rooted white family. Family finances were never flush. We will hear how he spent pre-high school years in Indonesia, where poverty was rampant, attending Catholic and then public schools there.
His intelligence and personality landed him a five star education thanks to scholarships and student loans, first in an exclusive private high school in Hawaii, and later as the top student at Harvard Law. He disdained better paying jobs and he chose to serve the blighted neighborhoods of South Chicago, organizing the grass roots to pull themselves up from joblessness and poverty. Like McCain, he too chose politics as a way to forward his vision.
We have just lived through seven and a half years of an administration filled with people experienced in military, foreign affairs, and business … particularly, the oil business. George W. Bush came from a background of privilege and tradition, oil and West Texas, and a world view that was parochial, to say the least.
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He listened to his neo-con advisors, launched a war against Iraq, stretched our military to a breaking point, and angered our allies with its unilateralist, go-it-alone policies based on a mistaken belief in America’s unlimited power. Bush took over a government with a balanced budget and made it a government burdened by the worst deficits we have ever seen, and it caused economic pain to the middle class.
Experience, in retrospect, did not serve judgment calls well.
What lessons can we draw from that? Life experiences have much to do with future judgment calls. Advisors who are relied upon also could influence judgment calls, if they are not ignored.
The choice of Sen Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate is to be applauded. Sen. Biden’s experience in foreign policy with his realpolitik, non-ideological view of its practice is without question. Obama has a track record of listening to advisors as he did in organizing the community in Chicago. Sen Obama has already made it clear that he is committed to not surrounding himself with yes men/women.
McCain has already stated his vision of a vice presidential role. Faced with some tough, potentially unpopular choices, Sen. McCain the other day relegated the veep role to inquiring after the health of the president or breaking ties in the Senate. His maverick, go-it-alone modus operandi is legendary, though in retrospect, he has supported Bush policies 90 percent of the time.
Life experience of the two candidates could not be more of a contrast. John McCain’s view of life is through the prism of military experience. His main focus in the past has always been the military. He has admitted he knows little about economic matters. He insists our economy is fundamentally sound, while the financial markets and major employers take a dive and foreclosures, inflation, and unemployment hit the middle class.
McCain’s tax policy continues the Bush economic policies, that helped put us in this mess in the first place. He obviously favors the wealthy and corporations over the middle class.
John McCain clearly understands military affairs at a tactical level. However, that is different than understanding foreign affairs. Conduct of foreign affairs uses the weapons of diplomacy, negotiation, and military and economic pressures. It requires a realization that conflicts are not just matters of a war between good and evil, but it demands understanding of complex relations with feuding ethnic, religious and tribal groups as well. A quick finger on the trigger at 3 a.m. may not always be the best policy. This is particularly true in these days of loose nukes controlled by dictators who are also loose cannons on the deck.
John McCain wants to confine the diplomatic tools to negotiating only with those who already agree with us (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and he comes from a political tradition that views multilateral sensitivities with suspicion. Putting our country first may be a great slogan, and it highlights his patriotism, but it hardly reassures our allies that he believes fighting terrorism or dealing with a reawakened Russian bear is a team effort. I fear the burden will continue to fall on the shoulders of a go-it-alone United States and its taxpayers if he is elected. Sadly, thanks to the Bush economic and military policies, the United States is not even strong enough these days to go it alone.
Barack Obama’s life experience brings some very helpful insights to middle class day-to-day struggles and the street, whether it is the street in other countries or the streets of our cities. His life experiences have given him a unique ability to understand the complex issues involved in both domestic and foreign policy.
One of the factors in the Bush administration’s making poor judgment calls in the Iraq war was cultural ignorance. Our leaders actually believed that our troops would be met with flowers and gratitude, and it took at least four to five years before we caught onto the depth of feeling of the ethnic conflict there and developed a strategy to harness it to our advantage. On the other hand, Obama’s life experience has made him aware that not everyone in the world thinks like we do in America.
Yet Obama is no peacenik. He opposed invading Iraq because he thought our military priorities lay in Afghanistan, the real source of the Sept. 11 attackers, and he questioned whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He proposed a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq to put pressure on the Shiia dominated government there to power-share with the Sunnis and the Kurds so we could reposition our troops in Afghanistan. History is proving him right already.
Urgency to untangle our combat troops from Iraq became even greater this month with recent events in Eastern Europe and Georgia. Even the Bush administration has negotiated a time line of sorts for withdrawal while McCain still exhorts victory in Iraq in military terms and he proposes a prolonged stay of our combat troops there.
Anyone who disagrees with him is simply surrendering, he charges. Guess that includes President Bush, too.
John McCain’s life experience has resulted in his tendency to be a military Johnny one note. We need to use all the instruments in our band, military, diplomatic, and economic, to look after our national interests and we need to provide domestic economic policies that help the majority of Americans. Obama’s life experience gives him a much broader view of the world, and his judgment calls have already been reflected in his platform and pronouncements.
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