On the Issues, a look where each candidate stands
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Leadership is a pretty hard thing to define. Like art, you know it when you see it.
As Americans go to the polls Tuesday to elect the nation's 44th president, members of Congress and local and state offices, the myriad traits we seek in our leaders are foremost on everyone's mind.
So what exactly do we want?
Experience, sure. We want elected leaders who know how government works, who are plugged into the problems the nation faces and can develop solutions. Yet we also acknowledge there are different types of experience beyond government work that can apply to effective leadership.
We look for good communicators who can inspire with words as well as actions and successfully connect with the American people. We want our president to assure us in times of crisis and speak directly to us at all times. Some presidents have been better at this than others in the broadcast age, and though eloquence is frequently dismissed by some as a frivolous trait, we do miss it when it is lacking.
We want a president who can act decisively and not dither over a problem, yet still think it through clearly. We want one who surrounds himself with strong advisers and cabinet members, yet who can stand on his own at decision time. We want him to agree with us on the major issues, but also to take the right path when the unexpected occurs, and break with conventional wisdom when necessary.
We expect him to be smarter, wiser and more capable than us, yet still plain-spoken, someone we could have over for beers and a ballgame.
We want a lot, it seems. Which may be why we often wind up disappointed.
This year, John McCain and Barack Obama offer contrasting choices. One is a war hero with a long history in the Senate, a coalition builder with an independent streak. The other is an eloquent lawyer and introspective thinker who embodies the nation's diversity in his own family history. A conservative who is moderate on some issues, a liberal who tilts center on others.
Rhetoric aside, this is how it's supposed to work. Otherwise, why have more than one option on a ballot?
Yet some still sneer at the choices on the ballot this year, wishing for better candidates in one or both parties. These are voters who feel less than inspired in nearly every election, for whom no one is good enough. Unless the ballot includes more Roosevelts, Trumans, Kennedys or Reagans, they won't be satisfied. And many thought little of those revered leaders when they were running.
We have set the bar so high it is difficult for any candidate to live up to all that is expected. That is particularly the case in an age when our 24/7 news cycle and Internet blogs lead to intense scrutiny of every word and every flaw in a candidate's past and present. No one can meet those standards, yet all who try are dismissed as inadequate.
An objective view this year would conclude that both McCain and Obama are smart, serious men of different backgrounds and with different talents. Either could be a successful president, given the right support and a few breaks from Lady Luck.
But which is the better leader? We may not know until the winner has served his full term in office, perhaps even well beyond that. Many great presidents did not earn the respect they found later when the impact of their decisions was put in perspective.
But we do know we need strong leaders now in Washington because that characteristic is hard to find. Both parties today are headless serpents, their members acting as free agents. Without strong leaders to set a course, they dissolve into partisanship, driven only by political survival. There are no ambitious agendas or grand plans to reform our nation's governance, only a focus on getting through the next election cycle, and then the one after that.
That's why many of the difficult problems we face -- illegal immigration, Social Security and entitlement reform, health care -- remain unresolved and keep cropping up over and over in election campaigns. Each of these issues requires political courage and compromise to reach a solution, but neither side is willing or able to get it done.
Real leaders inspire their followers to take on tough issues and made hard decisions. They look past the next election and on to the future, knowing the choices made now may not be felt for years and offer no short-term political advantage.
True leaders serve something greater than their own political ambitions, or that of their party or followers. They see the whole picture, not just the portion that fills their campaign coffers or bumps up their approval numbers.
This is what our nation needs in the White House, in Congress, in the state legislature and in county and city governments: Selfless, talented, forward-thinking people who can solve problems and make a difference, not just fill a seat and a spot on their resumes. Bold visionaries with no fear of failure, not driven by ego or self gratification but a love of country and a desire to make the world better in measurable ways.
We voters have a chance to find such people when we cast our ballots on Tuesday. If true leaders are there, it is up to us to separate them from the pretenders. We must cut through the campaign clutter, the robocalls, signs and TV ads, the speeches and spin, and find the statesmen and stateswomen we trust with our future.
It's a lot to ask. We've set the bar high, maybe too high, but it's too late to lower it now. There is too much at stake.
Please make the effort to prepare yourself for this crucial decision and go vote Tuesday, if you haven't already. Vote for the candidates you trust to guide our country, our state and our communities through difficult times. We are counting on each other to make the right choices, for the right reasons, in this most historic of elections.