A good thing about the upcoming elections is that either presidential candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush. The race is surprisingly close at this point, given Obama's highly successful foreign tour, favorable press coverage and inspiring speeches as compared to McCain's gaffes and senior moments. Many more voters view Democrats favorably as compared to Republicans. Obama is an inspirational speaker with quick wit and charm. He is also highly intelligent and organized.
Yet according to CNN's "Poll of Polls" today Obama is at 47% to McCain's 44% with 9% undecided. What gives?
One reason McCain is so close may be that he is still widely thought of as decent and principled despite his share of flip-flops. The Washington Post today carried a long article about how emotion and ambition have always guided McCain's behavior. But even such negative coverage may only humanize him and not tarnish his overall standing with voters.
Obama appeals to the idealism of his enthusiastic supporters with his message of change and hope. Yet in his life there seems little or nothing of principle he's done, or made sacrifices, that compromised his own interests.
Then there have been his rapid switches on issues after winning the Democratic nomination. These move him to the center or even into Republican territory, like his wooing of evangelicals and decrying a Supreme Court ruling against the death penalty in non-homicidal cases.
Such tactics while smart help shape perceptions. Half the voters (myself included) think Obama will do or say whatever gets him elected or furthers his personal interests. But even assuming that is true, how much does it matter? It largely depends on what the candidate hopes to achieve by becoming President.
The significance of being the first black / minority President shouldn't be lost on Obama. Here is his chance to go down in history as a great leader with path-breaking accomplishments. If that's his objective then his actions and decisions driven by pure self-interest will largely converge with what is good for the country. He will surround himself with good people, and take decisions on their merits in the national interest to secure his legacy.
Companies seek the smartest and most capable CEOs who are not necessarily nice guys. The system of compensation, rewards (and punishments in case of wrongdoing) tries to align the CEOs' self-interest with that of the companies.
This private company analogy can apply to Obama even if his incentives for being a good President are different. So while Obama has his core following of wide-eyed admirers it will be interesting to see how the preferences of the more skeptical swing voters unfold in the coming months.