WASHINGTON — We have completed the Survivor phase of the presidential campaign, in which pundits and pollsters waited for one of the candidates to make a gaffe in the debates so they could vote him off the island. Now, with just two weeks left, maybe we can focus on the issue of leadership for a country in deep, deep trouble.
Despite Barack Obama's big lead in the polls, he hasn't yet made a decisive case for how he would govern in this time of crisis. His demeanor is cool and calm, his intellect razor-sharp, and if smart guys were automatically good leaders, it would be game, set and match for Obama.
But leadership is something more mysterious, and it comes in odd packages — the brooding, depressive Abraham Lincoln; the patrician Franklin Roosevelt; the genial ex-actor Ronald Reagan; the priapic good ol' old boy Bill Clinton. What is inside the Obama package? We still need to know more.
Over the next two weeks, Obama should help the country visualize what his administration would look like. He should show how he would step up to the economic crisis, an unfolding disaster that we compare so often to the Great Depression that the analogy is losing its horrific impact. What sorts of people would Obama appoint to his Cabinet? How would he deal with two wars, as commander in chief rather than as political campaigner?
The country is looking for two conflicting qualities in the next president — change and stability. Obama certainly embodies the former. He launched his campaign by styling himself as the change agent who could reach across racial and party divisions. But what kind of change? Oddly, for the great rhetorician, the vision thing has been a bit fuzzy in recent weeks. Obama should reveal what's in his head and heart by expressing more of the big ideas that would animate an Obama presidency.
The stability theme is a harder one for Obama, but it's likely to be crucial in bringing home the victory the pollsters are predicting. The country is frightened. People want reassurance that Obama, for all his talk about change, isn't going to overturn the apple cart. A dream television spot in the final week would be a fireside chat between Obama and his sometime economic adviser, Warren Buffett. That would close the deal, I suspect.
Balancing change and stability in foreign policy is Obama's biggest challenge — and John McCain's greatest opportunity. An "October Surprise" that dramatized the need for experienced leadership would obviously help McCain. But even here, Obama can use the next two weeks to send the message that there will be "a steady hand at the tiller," to use one of McCain's lines.
The best way for Obama to signal continuity would be to do publicly what I'm told he has already begun privately — which is to express confidence in the two key leaders at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus.
Members of Obama's inner circle have discussed the possibility of asking Gates to stay on for a transitional year or so. This transition would make sense for the country, and Gates would probably say yes. As for Petraeus, Obama is said to have signaled that he would listen carefully to military advice about Iraq and Afghanistan rather than make radical changes.
Obama could embrace both continuity and change abroad by endorsing some of Petraeus' new ideas about the way forward in Afghanistan. Far from the "surge to victory" image conveyed by McCain's rhetoric, Petraeus is looking for ways to negotiate with and co-opt the insurgents. He wants to explore truces and alliances with the tribal warlords who make up the insurgent "syndicate" — so that they are taken off the battlefield without a new war. That's what Petraeus did in Iraq, and it's a strategy Obama could support for Afghanistan.
The temptation for Obama will be to sit on his lead and avoid taking the risk of defining his leadership in sharper terms. For a man of lesser ambition, that play-it-safe strategy might make sense. But Obama is something different. At his best, he seems to think beyond the political calculus of how to get elected to the deeper problem of how to lead and govern. Over these next two weeks, Obama should step on the accelerator, not the brake.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is email@example.com.
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