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Why Obama Should Be President

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It should be no surprise to readers of this column that I support Barack Obama for president. But my reasons for doing so, as a former supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, might be of interest to those 10 percent to 20 percent of voters whom surveys show are still relatively open to voting for either candidate.

First, what may be the most important: Mr. Obama has, in my judgment, crossed the threshold of plausibility and credibility as both president and commander in chief. At the outset of his campaign, he had a ways to go -- as he himself would be the first to admit as a two-term state senator and after only two years in the U.S. Senate.

But one step at a time over the course of the campaign for the nomination and in the general election, he has shown the strength of character, toughness based on conviction and self-confidence, and steadiness, poise and maturity to seem "presidential." That word is hard to define, similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: "I can't define it -- but I know it when I see it."

But we know we saw it in Mr. Obama's steady and bipartisan reaction to the eruption of the credit crunch and banking crisis -- the greatest economic crisis that America has faced since the Great Depression. We could now imagine, without any stretch, a President Obama quietly reassuring the American people, as another great Democratic president did 75 years ago: "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."

Sen. John McCain's reaction, on the other hand, was less reassuring, even erratic: the suspension of his campaign; no apparent contribution to the final result; an off-again, on-again decision to participate in the debate; and, at times, an angry projection in speeches and during the debates. It conveyed to me at least a less steady and reassuring presidential projection.

Second, Mr. Obama has articulated specific programs to address America's most pressing domestic problems -- for example, job creation, energy independence, health care, progressive taxation. The programs may not be perfect. But during his campaign, he has tried to get American politics back into the solutions business, rather than the personal-attack business.

While Mr. McCain has tried to be more specific than most other Republicans in using government to solve problems, he is philosophically more reluctant to do so. And his -- albeit belated -- support of the Bush regressive tax cuts and his relatively consistent record opposing government regulations mean that his basic philosophy is presumptively anti-government conservatism -- which is not what I believe the country needs right now.

Third and related to the second point, Mr. Obama has proved that in style and approach to politics, he is a man more of the center than the purist left of the Democratic Party. In today's financial crisis, we all should recognize that there can be no solutions without bipartisanship. That means compromise and consensus-building, picking and choosing among liberal and conservative ideas that work best. It also means speaking to conservatives on social and religious values in ways that liberal Democrats have too often avoided.

For example, in the months before Mr. Obama declared his candidacy, my eldest son, Seth, who supported the Obama candidacy even then, sent me a DVD of a speech he had seen on Mr. Obama's Web site concerning faith and spirituality in his life and his belief that Democrats needed to be more openly respectful of people of faith, including those on the evangelical right.

I listened to the speech and, though I would continue to support the presidential candidacy of my friend Mrs. Clinton, I was immensely impressed by the Obama speech, particularly the power of his tone as well as his words.

In my 2006 book, Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America, I wrote:

"Which, if any, leaders will have the courage to lead his or her party to win the presidency in 2008 - and then reach across the aisle to form a grand coalition government drawn from both parties, liberals and conservatives, to take a 'time out' from partisanship and solve America's most pressing problems at home and abroad?"

Clearly, Mr. Obama has now proved that he is that candidate. And he can be that kind of president.

In yesterday's significant endorsement of Mr. Obama, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell emphasized this last point most of all -- that Mr. Obama is fundamentally a consensus builder who can govern the nation from the purple center.

I give Mr. McCain a great deal of credit for the bipartisanship he has shown through the years and a willingness to stand up to the right-wing base of his own party, such as on campaign finance and immigration.

But that has not been in evidence in the last two years as he sought to placate the conservative and religious right base of his party. And his campaign ads have too often been distorted and downright nasty - uncharacteristic of the John McCain of the past.

In the final analysis, Mr. Obama seems to me to have greater political flexibility to reach out and govern from the center than Mr. McCain.

Next week, I will address a larger, historical question about the outcome of the presidential election: How will America feel about itself on Nov. 5th -- and what will it say to the rest of the world -- if Mr. Obama is elected president?

Lanny Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and a political analyst. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush's five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. This article appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, October 20, 2008.