Column: The Public Eye: Why Not the Best?

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday February 05, 2008

Today, “Super Tuesday,” millions of Americans will select either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president. Both carry historic liberal values and are capable of doing an excellent job as president. The question voters will have to decide is not who can do the job “on day one”—they both can—but rather who would be the best fit for these tumultuous times. 

Each candidate has strong points. Sen. Clinton is smart, experienced, and has the advantage of having been part of the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns of her husband, Bill Clinton. Although some pundits describe her as a centrist, in comparison to the likely Republican presidential candidates she is a progressive. Ms. Clinton has retained contact with many of the people who served her husband for eight years; there is no doubt that if she were to be elected President, she would hit the ground running on Jan. 20, 2009. 

Sen. Obama is the surprise candidate. Five years ago, few Americans would have predicted that an African American with the unlikely name of Barack Hussein Obama would be a contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Although he has only been a member of Congress since January 2005, Mr. Obama has a compelling personal history: the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, he has worked as a community organizer as well as a civil-rights attorney. He has surrounded himself with experienced advisers—Sens. Durbin, Kennedy, Kerry, and Leahy, among others—and would probably have no difficulty making the transition to the 44th presidency. 

Although the details of their proposed policies differ, both Clinton and Obama offer a stark contrast to the Republican position. Iraq? Clinton and Obama want a plan for withdrawal; Republicans want to stay until we “win.” Healthcare? Clinton and Obama favor a national plan that serves the most needy; Republicans want to deal with the problem by “tax incentives.” Recession? Clinton and Obama favor tax credits to help average Americans and programs to create jobs; Republican want tax cuts that favor corporations and the rich. On issue after issue, the differences between Clinton and Obama are barely perceptible, while they and their possible Republican adversaries are miles apart. 

The important difference is how the two candidates conceive of the presidency. During the Jan. 15 Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, Sen. Clinton said, “I do think that being president is the chief executive officer… you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy.” Sen. Obama disagreed: “Being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively. It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go. It involves having the capacity to bring together the best people and being able to spark the kind of debate about how we’re going to solve [problems]; and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.” 

Ms. Clinton countered that George W. Bush also promised to be a “uniter,” implying Mr. Obama was naïve. He pointed to his record as a community organizer and a politician, where he had proven effective bringing people together to form a broad consensus. Many pundits argue Hillary Clinton is less capable of doing this, as she is seen as divisive. 

Sen. Clinton espouses what might be termed the “executive” view of the presidency: the role of the president is to formulate programs and get them through Congress. Sen. Obama supports the “leadership” view: the role of the President is to inspire the American people and create the conditions for change. Both models have proven successful in recent American history: LBJ was an executive who got major programs through Congress, for example the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan was a conservative leader who created the conditions for change—many of them negative. 

Hillary Clinton is an unusually strong politician who happens to be a woman. Barack Obama is an inspirational leader who happens to be black. When you listen to their speeches, one difference is the use of pronouns: Clinton emphasizes “I,” as in “I will do this.” Obama emphasizes “we,” as in “we can change America.” 

Deciding which candidate will be better for America depends on how one conceives of the job of the next president. If you see it as passing lots of legislation, ramming reversals of Bush policies through an obdurate Congress, Sen. Clinton may be the best candidate. If you see the job of the 44th president as creating the conditions for fundamental change, as I do, then Sen. Obama prevails. I can imagine him convincing Americans to simplify their lives and quit using fossil fuel; it is difficult to see Ms. Clinton doing this. 

The next president will have to inspire Americans to make sacrifices and work for the common good. I think Barack Obama is best prepared to do this. We should elect the person who will be the best fit for these times. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at