Obama vs. McCain 2008: Round 21: Symbolism of President

This is the twenty-first of a weekly series of public forums on TMB.

Arguably, one of the most important and consequential factors of a U.S. president is not simply what the president does, but what he/she symbolizes.

What might be the national or international consequences of what a McCain or Obama presidency would symbolize? Feel free to also weigh in on what this might mean, if anything, for the growth of the Church.

Be sure to visit next week (beginning Monday, October 27) for our final round, Who Will You Vote for and Why? This is your chance to declare who you will be voting for and why. Arguments for third-party or independent tickets (or even for staying home, I suppose) will also be welcome.

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11 Responses

  1. I think that Colin Powell summed it up pretty well when he said:

    “I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming … onto the world stage and on the American stage.”

    Maybe some people have a hard time seeing Obama as president. And to be fair, I can see why they feel that way. He’s young, he’s African American, he doesn’t have year and years of experience behind him, his background is different from other presidents we’ve seen in the past, he’s “electrified” people abroad, as Powell put it.

    So, for those who have an image of a president as being a white, middle-aged man who has been in politics for decades, who grew up in Texas or Arkansas, Obama is definitely something new.

  2. Certainly an Obama victory will be a symbolic plus for African-Americans and Europeans. By and large, Obama’s election alone would instantaneously improve the image of the U.S. abroad (whether it should is another question, but I think it’s pretty indisputable that it will).

    Probably the most important question right now, though, is what president’s election would serve as the most symbolic for a healthy future economy? I can imagine arguments on both sides. Still, at least in the short term, I wonder if Obama has the edge here. He represents something new, and there are a whole lot of people out there who are blaming Bush policies for the economy (which McCain matches very highly). But I could certainly be wrong here.

    I imagine for some conservative Mormons and evangelical Christians, a McCain victory would symbolize that we have a little more time before Armageddon :) A McCain victory could also symbolize more faith (however true) in overturning Roe v. Wade and fighting against same-sex marriage.

    For more moderate Mormons, an Obama victory might indicate a greater hope for improved missionary work abroad (as a result of higher opinions of Americans). It also might increase morale among economically-struggling Latter-day Saints in the U.S., especially urban areas back East. This last prediction might seem like a stretch, but from my time on a mission in Philadelphia, I don’t think it is; many urban members were devastated — spiritually devastated — when Gore lost to Bush in 2000. And the ultra-conservativism of many of their suburban ward members (typically from the West) didn’t help any.

  3. I need to add, though, that I think it is strange that Joe Biden has already begun to lower expectations for an Obama presidency. Biden said the other day that you could count on their being a huge crisis early on in Obama’s presidency that would cause a lot of people to be upset about him, and so it’s important for his supporters to be ready for this so they can know that he, Joe Biden, predicted this and by knowing this would be patient and keep the faith.

    I think that Biden is a very capable leader and will make an excellent VP, but every now and then he says something really stupid. This is one of those times.

    I suppose, in his defense, he justified this statement on the basis of a historical pattern. Still, dumb to say.

  4. McCain jumped on Biden’s gaffe right away, saying that he’s pretty much just inviting a terrorist attack. I think Biden is a good guy, but yes, this is another example of how he talks before he thinks.

    It’s interesting how you talked about the spiritual devastation of some members after Gore lost to Bush. I think that if McCain manages to pull off an upset (which I doubt, but anything is possible), then we will see an even deeper devastation, especially among minorities and those in lower economic classes.

    You’re right that an Obama win will automatically improve America’s image abroad. I also question whether it’s entirely fair, and I know that the celebrity/charisma factor is definitely a big part of that. But aside from that, Obama represents a hope for a change in foreign policy. Even if McCain doesn’t really follow in Bush’s footsteps, the world’s perception is that he will and it will take a lot to change that. As well, the fact that Obama is a liberal makes him more appealing and less intimidating than McCain. Even though there are conservative gov’t’s in Canada (which just re-elected the Conservatives) and Europe, American Republicanism is a brand of its own. There’s nothing like it and many view it as too extreme. For example, one of my best friends back in Canada is a die-hard conservative. He always votes conservative in Canada and he is very conservative in many ways. So last time I talked to him, we were talking about the US election (this was during the primaries) and I assumed that he supported the Republican party, but he said that he supported Hillary because even for a conservative like him, American Republicanism was just too much for him.

  5. I don’t understand… spiritual devastation because the government won’t come in and solve all their problems for them?

  6. Jeff,

    Your comment shows that you definitely don’t understand, especially if you think that urban Latter-day Saints think that the government should solve all of their problems for them. Honestly, Jeff, we can raise the level of discourse a little higher, don’t you think?

  7. No, I’m serious. If you experience spiritual devastation because Gore didn’t win, you are looking to the wrong Messiah.

  8. From the perspective of international relations, Dennis is right that Obama will immediately improve our image. But I don’t think this can last. Obama has created some very high expectations for himself. Domestically, I think more people recognize that no president can deliver the things Obama has promised. But internationally, I think there will be a hard fall.

    We often tend to forget that there was plenty of anti-American sentiment abroad before Bush came. Yes, Bush has been innovative in his ability to tick the rest of the world off – but in the long run, people dislike America for lots of other reasons. The Arab world hates us do to our policy with Israel; considering the domestic and international political constraints, Obama is unlikely to significantly change that policy. Europeans are annoyed with us because we often (even before Bush) push for an agenda that is in our interests but not theirs; but an Obama presidency does not automatically make those interests align (though I hope some of them will), which means the US will have to continue to depart from European company when our interests clash (for example, Obama will have to address the growing Russia problem, but Europeans just don’t want to do to energy dependence).

    The truth is, all countries act in their own interests. European opposition to Iraq was not just because it was a huge mistake – Europeans haven’t been afraid of big blunders before. It was because it went against their interests – like France’s illegal trade with Iraq or general domestic Islamic constraints. Since we’re the biggest kid on the block, we get what we want more than most. This means that regardless of who is president, America will continue to tick off the world as long as it is big.

    Anti-Americanism does not end with Obama. It will certainly decline substantially from the Bush years, but Obama will not be what the rest of the world thinks he will be. He will let them down. He will let the Europeans down; he will let the Arabs down; he will let the Latin Americans down; he will let down the Asians. Big promises and a big symbolic image on the campaign are one thing; facing the real political constraints (which the Yes We Can crowd denies exist) once in office is something entirely different.

    Oh, but on the election: at this point I think it’s all moot. McCain has no chance, so Obama is what we get (and I’m fine with that).

  9. Jeff,

    I guess I mean devastation in a more colloquial sense. I should probably say they were very disappointed, and this disappointment had a spiritual flavor in the sense that Gore’s victory was something they felt God was on the side of.

  10. Thanks for the clarification.

  11. I think that the “spiritual devastation” that Dennis speaks of is probably just the direct opposite of the “spiritual victory” that many Mormons would feel by an anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage Republican president winning. Am I wrong when I say that some Mormons think that God has a hand in politics? I certainly know a few. So I guess that those few Mormons (or even non-Mormons, for that matter) who see Democratic values as the best for society and individuals (such as through better social programs, universal health care, more help for the poor, etc.), may believe that God wants a Dem in office, just as much as many believe that God wants a Rep in office. Hence the “spiritual” let-down for either side when their man loses.

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