The Temperament Debate

Can a contest for the world’s most important public office get any more uncertain than this? For all of his seriousness and sobriety, Barack Obama consistently seems to find himself playing the straight man in these unhinged political acts.

First, Sarah Palin and her hockey mom-with-lipstick sent the political contest hurtling into bizarro world, at least for a while. Then, the country’s credit and mortgage crisis evolved into a full-blown threat to the nation’s financial system, turning the economy into the overriding issue in the campaign. That led John McCain to cite the turmoil, declare that he was…

Can a contest for the world’s most important public office get any more uncertain than this? For all of his seriousness and sobriety, Barack Obama consistently seems to find himself playing the straight man in these unhinged political acts.

First, Sarah Palin and her hockey mom-with-lipstick sent the political contest hurtling into bizarro world, at least for a while. Then, the country’s credit and mortgage crisis evolved into a full-blown threat to the nation’s financial system, turning the economy into the overriding issue in the campaign. That led John McCain to cite the turmoil, declare that he was suspending his campaign, and unsuccessfully seek to postpone tonight’s first presidential debate.

If there’s a bright spot in all of this mess for Obama enthusiasts, it’s this: Their candidate has a track record of riding out crazy political contests to victory.

Obama’s race for the U.S. Senate in 2004 featured two rivals who impaled themselves when unseemly revelations from long-sealed divorce records became public. The next bit of strangeness came when the outrageous conservative Alan Keyes entered the comedy-drama from stage Far Right.

Throughout that wild ride, a highly disciplined Obama kept his seat belt buckled, his two hands firmly on the wheel and his eyes keenly fixed on the road ahead. And ultimately, this mature strategy proved highly effective.

If he is to be successful in November, a similar approach seems necessary. Americans likely don’t want to see panic from their candidate, and McCain this week bordered on panic. There’s enough anxiety emanating from Wall Street.

That said, neither McCain nor Obama has offered the kind of detailed policy prescriptions to the economic crisis that voters and editorial writers probably want. After unwisely declaring the fundamentals of the economy strong, McCain called for a commission to study those fundamentals. Obama would seem positioned perfectly here because he has long advocated for a more active government role in regulating the market, and he’s often warned that markets can fail.

However, Obama is much less believable on this topic since becoming a presidential candidate. The reason: He’s had massive amounts of Wall Street money flow into his campaign coffers, and he’s courted economic advisers like former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who have been directly responsible for deregulation.

But policy aside, Obama’s relentlessly reasonable tone and calm, clear-headed demeanor in the middle of a storm could prove a valuable asset in the current climate. To this close observer, Obama’s collected nature has always been one of his most appealing attributes when determining whether he has the temperament to handle the presidency.

There is still a long way to go in the contest. And McCain is throwing one surprise after another into the mix, which effectively has him running the circus. By forcing Obama off the campaign trail and back to Washington, McCain sought to make the case that he is leading through the crisis while Obama idly watches from the sidelines. And maybe that’s what voters will see in the end—one guy taking charge and the other standing by.

It’s all a fascinating psychological case study of contrasts in the two men: one who shoots from the hip and hopes the dust will settle in his favor, and another who is deliberative and studied before pulling the trigger. Beyond basic policy differences, Americans certainly do have a choice here.

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