With the United States confronting a major economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presidential historian Richard Reeves says American voters choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama want a president who will lead the nation rather than just run the country.
"This election is not just about the candidates' character, but also the nation's character," Reeves said. "It's about determining which of these two imperfect and ambitious men will bring out the best in us over the next four years."
With the election less than a month away, more than 200 students, faculty and guests came to hear Reeves at the Soda Center on Oct. 8. The event was sponsored by the Committee for Art, Lectures and Music and the Disney Forum.
An award-winning biographer of presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Reeves believes Obama will win what he called "the last election of the Reagan presidency."
"Reagan has been president for the last 28 years in the sense that the ideas he brought and developed lasted even through Democratic administrations," Reeves said. "Parts of (the Reagan legacy), particularly deregulation of the financial markets, are unraveling with results we haven't figured out yet."
Reeves argued that George W. Bush's tenure at the White House represents a historic low for the country, pointing to what he described as significant declines in U.S. military, economic and moral standing in the world since 2001.
"There's no point in mincing words. Bush is in a great contest with James Buchanan as the worst president in U.S. history," he said.
In addition to serving as a referendum on the Bush presidency, the 2008 campaign reflects major demographic changes within U.S. society, Reeves noted. He said the idea that women and African-Americans would be serious U.S. presidential and vice-presidential candidates would have been unthinkable until very recently.
Assessing the two main presidential candidates' weaknesses, Reeves said the pensive Obama may be "too nice" to be an effective president.
"Thoughtfulness is not always the greatest virtue of many presidents," Reeves said, arguing that it can lead to indecisiveness while in office and citing Jimmy Carter as a cautionary example.
Reeves said McCain's age and impulsiveness could be obstacles to effective presidential leadership. The 72-year-old Republican candidate has "lost a little hop on his fastball," Reeves said, adding that he has even greater concerns about McCain's temperament.
"Would John McCain have had the patience to sit out Cuban Missile crisis for 13 days to work out the solution?" he asked. "There are many people who think if John McCain had been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba wouldn't be there, and maybe neither would we."
Regardless of Obama and McCain's detailed policy proposals, Reeves said the next president will be remembered for how he handles one or two major unscripted crises that emerge during his time in office.
"No one remembers whether Abraham Lincoln balanced the budget or not," Reeves noted. "They remember that he kept the Union together."
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Photograph by Gorbachev Lingad '10