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Obama-McCain: Lincoln vs. Rambo

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Bob Burnett
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Four months out from the 2008 presidential election, it's obvious that Barack Obama and John McCain offer a stark contrast on their positions on the key issues, their personalities and, most tellingly, their worldviews.

Obama is 47 and mixed-race, the product of a lower-middle-class background. His personal story evokes the Horatio Alger narrative: the person born in humble surroundings who overcomes numerous obstacles and rises to the top. Obama is the son of a biracial couple, abandoned by his father when he was two, raised by his white mother and grandmother, who worked his way through college and law school, and cut his teeth as a community organizer and civil-rights attorney. He's a classic example of someone who improved his station in life through hard work.

McCain is 72 and white, the product of an elite military family. A Navy man like his father and grandfather, he served for 23 years and entered politics in 1982. Having married into the wealthy Hensley family, McCain cannot claim to have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, as Obama did.

Those who know both men note differences in their temperaments. Obama is calm and collegial. McCain is described as mercurial and adversarial; he has become notorious for his temper tantrums and many believe he suffers from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from his six years as a P.O.W.

Despite these marked personal differences, the starkest contrast between Obama and McCain is in their worldviews. Obama favors the benevolent community narrative: "I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper." While acknowledging our common problems, he expresses confidence Americans can overcome them, so long as we work together. He sees the U.S. electorate as hungry for leadership that will unite them in pursuit of the common good.

In his first ad for the general election, Country I Love, Barack Obama speaks about America's core values and their impact on him: "Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated."

Because of his worldview, Obama is a philosophical democrat. He has confidence that ordinary Americans can make wise decisions. When he speaks of his plans for America, Obama frequently uses the personal pronoun we. As in "we can work together to change America." Obama's inclusive style reminds many historians of Abraham Lincoln.

In contrast, John McCain's worldview is negative, emphasizing danger rather than hope, fear as opposed to opportunity. McCain favors the mob at the gates narrative. He sees the U.S. as a beacon of light in an ocean of darkness, where America needs a strong military to protect it from barbarian hordes. McCain views the "war" on terror as having broad boundaries: the U.S. is not at war exclusively with Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups, but rather with all of Islam.

In his first ad for the general election, Safe, McCain touts his military bona fides and concludes, "I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe."

McCain is a mainstream conservative Republican; a philosophical Manichean who sees the world in grim dualistic terms: America is the light and the rest of the world - particularly the Muslim world - is the dark. From this perspective, the role of the President is not to bring Americans together, but rather to defend us from the heathens that threaten our borders. McCain emphasizes his readiness to serve as commander-in-chief and the necessity for Americans to subjugate their domestic concerns to the struggle required to "win" the war on terror; a key element is achieving "success" in Iraq, even if this takes one hundred years.

When McCain speaks of his plans for America, he favors the personal pronoun I. Despite his reputation as a "maverick," McCain's core political philosophy is the same as contemporary Republican Presidents: he does not have deep confidence in the people but instead advocates empowering elites such as Wall Street brokers, military leaders, or White House insiders. Thus, McCain is an advocate of the "Imperial Presidency" style of George W. Bush, which justified usurping power from Congress and the judiciary by arguing that because America was at war the President's powers as commander-in-chief gave him the authority to do whatever he wanted. While many have compared Dubya to John Wayne's cowboy loner, McCain's outlook is closer to that of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo vigilante.

Given this stark contrast in worldview, Americans will have a clear choice in November. If you believe that infidels are storming the gates of fortress America, then you're likely to decide the optimal presidential candidate should be a hardened warrior. That logic propels McCain's presidential bid: vote for Rambo; he'll protect us.

On the other hand, if you believe that enlisting the strength and wisdom of the American people can solve our problems and keep us safe, then you'll want a president who can unite us. That's the logic that underlies the Obama campaign: elect Lincoln; he'll bring us together.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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