I think the fact that Obama is an intellectual will be good for the country. As an educator, I've been saddened and embarassed throughout the past eight years as conservative media has made being educated or thinking things through into a negative thing by tarring them with the smear of "elitist." It's particularly ironic when you consider that the majority of our Presidents have been men of wealth, privilege, and yes, education. All but eight Presidents graduated college and nine received advanced degrees, mostly in law.
I like the fact that Obama would bring an intellectualism to the White House, particularly after so many years of the polar opposite from Bush. It has been suggested, particularly on foreign policy, that there is a danger in taking an academic and putting him into a position of great power and responsibility, because often times there is no "perfect answer," only a series of ever-worsening ones. There is also the argument that in some scenarios, a decisive leader is far more necessary than one who will waffle or stall trying to figure out the best thing to do.
This is a legitimate point, but Joe Klein from Time Magazine has written that Obama is learning to trust his instincts and become more confident in his decisions- without sacrificing a crucial ability to carefully think about what he's going to do before committing.
Barack Obama has prospered in this presidential campaign because of the steadiness of his temperament and the judicious quality of his decision-making. They are his best-known qualities. The most important decision he has made — the selection of a running mate — was done carefully, with an exhaustive attention to detail and contemplation of all the possible angles. Two months later, as John McCain's peremptory selection of Governor Sarah Palin has come to seem a liability, it could be argued that Obama's quiet selection of Joe Biden defined the public's choice in the general-election campaign. But not every decision can be made so carefully. There are a thousand instinctive, instantaneous decisions that a presidential candidate has to make in the course of a campaign — like whether to speak his mind to a General Petraeus — and this has been a more difficult journey for Obama, since he's far more comfortable when he's able to think things through. "He has learned to trust his gut," an Obama adviser told me. "He wasn't so confident in his instincts last year. It's been the biggest change I've seen in him."
On foreign policy, there are some areas where McCain might have more advantages than Obama. Being able to read foreign leaders and show them we mean what we say is certainly an area that comes to mind. On the other hand, seeming tough does us no good if we make bad decisions or do stupid things. Obviously the best scenario is a compromise where you can think fast on your feet AND make good gut decisions that are also based on actual analysis.
The value of Obama is in his temperment. He actually listens to people before he makes up his mind, whether he agrees with them or not (see Klein's article about Obama meeting with Petraeus). Again, compare this with what we've seen from the Bush White House. This is not to say that McCain is a Bush clone, but I definitely sense a stubborn streak from McCain. The same people that like McCain's refusal to back down should also think about what happens in cases where he might be wrong and decides, like Bush, to shut out anyone who tries to convince him otherwise. We've seen the disasters that brings. I have much more faith in Obama's ability to develop some street smarts and instincts when it comes to dealing with immediate foreign policy debacles than I do in McCain learning to listen to people who disagree with him- which includes when talking with people from foreign governments (or have we given up on that whole diplomacy thing altogether?)
Lastly, it is undeniable that the past eight years, and perhaps even the eight years before that, have seen an acceleration of the cultural divide to outrageous proportions. The Red/Blue state, Liberal/Conservative culture war nonsense continues unabated on TV, the Internet, Talk Radio and Print Media as people spend absurd amounts of effort ripping each other down and explaining why only their way is legitimate, patriotic, or sensical.
And yet there are areas we can come together. Most of us do care about poverty, even if we disagree on the best way to deal with it. We do care about healthcare and sustaining the most important government assistance programs. We all realize the necessity of a smart and efficient energy policy, as well as protecting ourselves from foreign enemies and making sure that our economy is stable and protected from speculators. And I think that the vast majority of us do believe in America's potential to make the world, and itself, a better place. The next President will inherit many problems, but perhaps one of the most serious ones is trying to bring us together on the core issues that unite us. I think Obama can do that, at least better than McCain.
To be totally honest, I also think that Obama's ability to speak past party lines would do not only the country, but also liberal values, a great service. Seeing Obama speak at Saddleback Church showed me that he can present the values of the Democratic party is a new and appealing way which challenge the stereotypes that we support abortion because killing babies is awesome or that we think religion should be banned or that we'd sooner let us all freeze to death than inconvenience a seal.
I don't need the Republicans to become Democrats. Having two parties is an essential part of our democracy and I actually wouldn't mind having more viable parties. But showing that there are real values, emotions and thought behind some of these positions that have been so pilloried (and distorted) for years would also, I believe, be a good start to making politics a little more civilized. Obama can bridge the gap. Not only don't I think McCain can do this, I'm not sure he'd even be interested.