Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the way Obama and McCain define leadership. See his previous OUPblogs here.
The world is watching as Senator Barack Obama tours the Middle East and Europe, but the only audience he cares about right now, are American voters, and in particular those who are still not sure that he will make a better commander-in-chief than Senator John McCain will. Foreign audiences are merely another funnel through which a campaign message can be directed to domestic ears.
That is why Obama is bringing along a star-studded cast from the American media establishment to Europe to help him disseminate his message. Even before he arrived in Afghanistan, Obama’s campaign had already received more attention from the media and foreign governments than the sum of attention that Senator McCain received when he visited Europe and the Middle East this Spring. Rightly or not, the media, the world, and liberals are hungry for a message that they have not heard from White House in a while. What remains to be seen is whether independent voters will take to the message.
What precisely is the take-home message the Obama campaign intends to transmit with these visits? Obama knows that he may or may not be perceived to be the the best candidate for dealing with terrorism; but he wants independent voters to know that even as a candidate for the presidency, he is already beginning to restore America’s image abroad. That is why Obama had originally planned to speak at the Brandenberg gate in Berlin, to remind his audience of the historic relationship between Europe and America that has been compromised of late. His of course, is the liberal understanding of global leadership that prefers to negotiate from a position of mutual respect than from a position of strength. Obama wants to remind or convince us that the President is more than a Commander-in-chief but also an ambassador to the world; the President is more than the terrorism tsar but also a leader and role model to the free world. He is attempting to reconfigure (or return) an essentially realist, even macho conception of presidential leadership to a more idealist, cosmopolitan one because only on these grounds can he try to erode Senator McCain’s perceived advantage on foreign policy among independent voters. If Obama can change the job description of the Oval Office to one that he will snugly fit, he wins.
For his part, Senator McCain will and must continue to resist this redefinition if he wants to keep probably the only trump card he wields in this election. This is why, for all the dangers of being associated with a third Bush term, Senator McCain is rearticulating the Bush understanding of presidential leadership, even to the point of caricature. In refusing to speak of a time table for withdrawal in Iraq when even the administration has ventured to consider a “general time horizon“, McCain is proposing a return to ostensibly original commitments pure and unwavering (from which even President Bush appears now to be departing). This is the archetypically conservative perspective that holds that once started, America’s missions aboard deserve our full and unmitigated support. Conveniently, this ideology which explains McCain’s principled commitment to Iraq also melds with his campaign’s claim that he is experienced and trustworthy, a strategy that incidentally was not productive for Hillary Clinton when she tried to play the “experience” card against Obama only because liberals do not assume the wisdom of President Bush’s commitment to Iraq, and they certainly do not accept the conservative creed that tried and tested is always noble and worth preserving.
The reason this year’s presidential election is historic is because more than any election in recent decades, it is about competing definitions of leadership and whether extant understandings of leadership are relevant or obsolete. The risks for Obama are not that he should appear too presumptiously presidential in these foreign visits, but that he should give Americans a preview of a type of presidential leadership they are not willing or ready to accept in our troubling times. McCain is hoping not so much to escape anti-Bush sentiments but to exploit them to say that while even this President flinched and wavered, he shall persevere. This shall be an election about the very meaning of leadership. Let the voters decide.