Friday, August 1, 2008

Does A President Need Principles?

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.


kenrod said...

First, let me speculate that this time, the CNN polls are wrong and will have to reflect a new reality. This is the first time a black is running for the Prez. The polls will have to be 6% ahead for Obama for him to have a victory. This is because there will be a huge amount of lying, saying they will vote for him but doing the opposite in the booth. So a 3% lead for Obama really means a victory for Mccain at this point. This is the sad reality, but he not only has to overcome the lying, but also the stigma of, "Psst, he's a Muslim."

And to your point, I think Obama is a flip-flopper. He was for a ban on off shore drilling, but now he's for it. He's a Chicagoan politician and they are amoungst the best. They will say anything to get elected.

Sandip Madan said...

I am not against flip-flopping per se, so long as it is motivated by a genuine change in beliefs, and not a cynical play to the polls. Sadly, it is mostly the latter. I wish McCain would flip-flop (or flip-flop back to his older stances) on some aspects of his tax / economic proposals and healthcare.

Like you Kenrod (and unlike Paul Krugman in a recent column) I doubt Obama's win is almost inevitable. Race will certainly play some role, though Obama has already benefited from one aspect of it - his support among blacks. There are also post-primary rifts among Democrats.

McCain for his part is repeatedly spoiling his decent guy image, e.g., by running those silly, snarky ads featuring Britney and Paris, or misquoting Obama.

kenrod said...

Okay, more of the cards are out. Obama's with Biden, McCain's with Palin. So what's your prediction?

Doesn't Sarah Pale in comparison to Obama?

I thought she was a good choice, however. She's re-energized the right wing which was lukewarm to McCain. She confuses the Hillary votes to maybe switch parties.

Sandip Madan said...

I think she's a very weak choice, and will diminish McCain's chances.

She's anti-abortion, pro NRA, and believes in teaching intelligent design, apart from having little experience. So she'll turn off the crucial centrist vote as well as most of Hillary's supporters whom she's supposed to attract.

On the other hand, she has a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter, and McCain apparently knew about this beforehand. McCain had so many good obvious choices and needed to just coast along. What was he thinking?

Anonymous said...

Conventional thinking is not wrong, but will bring you conventional results. So the conventional thinking was McCain should choose a VP that 1. Do no harm 2. Win a swing or key state 3. Be ready to be the next prez.

Well, McC is a maverick and an unconventional thinker as displayed by his first major decision as a nominee. A relatively unexperienced woman was his choice, from a small delegate state which always votes GOP. He could have gone with a conventional Gov. Pawlenty or Kay Bailey Hutchinson. But he would have still been down 8%. Instead he's up 3%. It still a long way to the polls but his maverick style is getting the Dems running scared. Let's see how long the Palin phenomenon lasts but at least he's out of the rut. And once again, the Dems may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


Sandip Madan said...

Kenrod, despite his recent bump in the polls, I think McCain had blundered strategically in picking Palin. He will alienate the crucial middle, and has considerably worsened his (erstwhile very bright) chances to win.

Let's see how this turns out, but my earlier prediction of a comfortable McCain victory is now off the table.