After two years of rigmarole on the campaign trail, a picture of the two U.S. presidential candidates is taking shape in my mind. In the spirit of dialogue, I’d love to know if it makes sense to you—and what you’re seeing that I’m not.
What I’m seeing, in Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are two fundamentally good and decent men. Both have strengths that, in my mind, make them extraordinarily qualified to be president. Each also has a near-fatal flaw. To wit:
Barack Obama. Four years ago, the man walked into a nightmare: two questionably funded and disruptive wars, a perilously large federal deficit, an opposition in Congress that wanted him fired, and an economy on the brink. Today, the situation is more stable, though by no means on an upward trajectory. That’s not bad. My guess is that four years of experience in the presidency is excellent preparation for four more years, especially for someone with an agile mind like Obama. Moreover, he is exceptionally well educated, intellectually curious, visionary at times, possessed of a strong desire to collaborate across divides, and unafraid to incorporate ideas from anywhere.
But…almost from the beginning, he has shown a strange reluctance to lead. At the height of the Obamacare debate, I recall him making a policy speech to Congress that took a cross-section of good ideas on healthcare and integrated them into a coherent vision. He then seemed to leave all the details, the advocacy for his vision, and the hard work of compromise to Congress. Why? Similarly, I saw him trying to work with the obstreperous Republican opposition long after it made sense to do so. Presidents need vision, they need intellectual heft, but they also need the ability to take the bull by the horns to turn those visions and ideas into reality.
Mitt Romney. Whatever else one might say about experience with “high finance,” it tends to confer the financial sophistication needed to grapple with things like deficits, economic issues, and debt. In addition to that, Romney’s resume shows a great deal of leadership experience, including the successful effort as a Republican governor to pass bold healthcare legislation in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Many people who know him personally have attested to his compassion and generosity.
But…the development of his public image—particularly the lurches from moderate governor to strident conservative partisan and, in last Tuesday’s debate, back again—make it impossible for me to say who the real Mitt Romney is. In the first debate, I couldn’t shake the sense of a man who would say anything to get elected. Moreover, I don’t think the four weeks till the election is enough time for him to project his “real self” and have me trust that it is real.
The bigger lesson for me is something I repeatedly forget: candidates for office are human—with spectacular abilities and frustrating flaws. Somehow I keep hoping that, eventually, a candidate will come along who is more than human. What I’d rather learn (and I am learning) is to look those flaws in the face, imagine how they might affect the candidate as president, and decide which flaws I can live with.
OK, I’ve gone on long enough. Your turn. What do you think? Is this what you’re seeing in the two candidates? Are you seeing something I’ve missed completely? Do you have a different perspective entirely? Please share it here.