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Election 2008: What's at Stake

Whoever Wins an November Will Face Enormous Challenges at Home and Abroad

By David E. Sanger


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The last time the United States chose a President while American troops were engaged in wars in two different parts of the world? It was in 1944, just as World War II was heading into its final months.

The last time that neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate was serving as President or Vice President? 1952, when voters eager to end an unpopular war in Korea turned to a military hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The last time a black man secured a major-party nomination and stood a good chance of winning? Never. Take those three facts together and mix in anxiety across the country about a struggling economy and soaring energy prices, and it becomes clear why this is an election like no other in our history.

The 2008 contest between Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois may be one of those rare elections in which voters make up their minds on questions of both substance and symbolism. Polls indicate that Americans are deeply unhappy with the country's direction㭌 percent say the country is on the wrong track—and millions say they are unsure which way to turn for solutions.

Iraq or The Economy?

The big question for voters, as they face both an economic downturn and international threats, is whether to elect a young first-term Senator promising change and new ideas, or a longtime Senator with strong military credentials and a reputation as a bit of a maverick.

The campaign so far has veered from the momentous to the trivial. There have been serious debates about the war in Iraq and the ailing U.S. economy. But the airwaves and the Internet have also been filled with questions about Obama's not wearing a flag pin on his lapel (he's started wearing one) and jokes about McCain's age. (If elected, he would be 72 when he takes office and the oldest man to be inaugurated.)

One thing is clear, however: Whoever walks into the White House on Jan. 20, 2009, will find enormous challenges waiting for him in the Oval Office.

Seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there is a gnawing sense that America's vulnerabilities are as great as ever. The C.I.A. reports that Al Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan, along the Afghan border. And a number of hostile countries are racing for nuclear weapons: North Korea exploded a primitive device two years ago, and Iran appears to be trying to develop at least the capability to build a bomb whose targets, they've suggested, would include Israel and American military forces in the Middle East.

The Iraq war has cost more than 4,000 American lives and $600 billion, and despite progress in recent months, the country remains far from the stable democracy President Bush envisioned. The two candidates have very different ideas about Iraq: Obama has promised to have all American troops out in 16 months, though over the summer he began to back away from a strict schedule. McCain vows to stick it out as long as necessary and build on recent gains, but he says most troops would be out by the end of his first term.

With attention and resources focused on Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating. (In June, U.S. soldiers had a higher risk of being killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq.) Both candidates acknowledge that even as U.S. forces leave Iraq, it will be necessary to boost troop levels in Afghanistan, where the Taliban—the Islamic fundamentalist group that harbored Osama bin Laden until they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001—are gaining strength and destabilizing the country.

But increasingly, the faltering economy seems to be rising to the top of voters' concerns. In recent months, the U.S. has slipped deeper into an economic slump prompted by the soaring price of oil and a mortgage crisis in which hundreds of thousands of homeowners may lose their homes and some financial institutions are looking shaky.

Turnout & Swing Voters

There are two factors that make this election particularly hard to predict. Obama is generating great enthusiasm among his supporters, especially young voters, who went to the polls in record numbers during the primaries. The question is whether those young people—who have a history of low turnout—will actually go to the polls in November.

The second factor is what swing voters—people who don't consistently vote for one party or another—will do. Polls indicate that many are impressed with McCain's experience but are also drawn to Obama's promise of change.

"I think what swing voters are saying," says Douglas Schoen, a former pollster for Senator Hillary Clinton, is that Obama is "an attractive guy, a good guy, but we don't really know what he's about."

If voters don't know who Obama is, it's partly because they've never seen a candidate quite like him. Obama is biracial, with a white mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, who left the family when Obama was very young. He spent part of his youth in Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country. (That and his middle name, Hussein, has bloggers claiming he is Muslim, when he's not; he's Christian.)

Obama went to Harvard Law School, was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, and to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

His supporters say Obama's childhood overseas gives him the perspective to repair the recent damage done to America's image abroad. His detractors stress his inexperience, noting he hasn't finished his first term in the Senate. Five years ago, he was still in the Illinois Senate when he gave a speech opposing American involvement in Iraq, which he now cites as an example of his foresight about what could go wrong.

"Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld had two of the longest rsums in Washington," Obama said last December of the Vice President and the former Secretary of Defense, "but that experience didn't translate into good judgment."

McCain has a very different biography. He grew up in a Navy family, the son and grandson of admirals, and was a daredevil Navy pilot during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. When Obama was in kindergarten in Indonesia, McCain's plane was shot down over North Vietnam. Despite his jokes about how "my airplane successfully intercepted a Vietnamese missile,'' there was nothing funny about the abuse he suffered at the "Hanoi Hilton,'' where he was held and tortured along with other American P.O.W.'s for five years. After his release, McCain worked for the Navy on Capitol Hill. In 1982, he was elected to the House of Representatives and four years later to the Senate.

Supreme Court

"We need a President who is very, very old," McCain joked on Saturday Night Live this spring. But he directs the same sarcasm at his opponent, saying of Obama last May, "With his very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues, he's been very successful."

McCain is not your typical Republican. He has challenged President Bush on the issue of torture and harsh interrogation tactics used on terror suspects. He has pushed for a more aggressive response to climate change and has been a leading voice for campaign-finance reform. And while he supported Saddam Hussein's removal, he was also an early critic of the Bush administration's conduct of the war, saying from the start that more troops were needed to secure and rebuild Iraq; whatever success the troop "surge'' is enjoying now is often cited as a vindication of McCain's strategy.

Still, many conservatives remain uncomfortable with McCain. In an effort to shore up their support, McCain says he'll appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court. With four Justices over 70, the next President could have the opportunity to fill several vacancies.

In addition to shaping the Supreme Court, the next President will face other key domestic and international challenges, including health care, immigration, and how to deal with the rise of China, India, and other developing nations: In this era of globalization, the ability of the U.S. to stay competitive is increasingly linked to the fortunes of other countries.

Vision vs. Experience

Obama's strategy for November seems to be to paint McCain as a classic Washington insider incapable of initiating real change, whose presidency would represent President Bush's "third term.'' McCain's plan is to try to cast Obama as a liberal lightweight who would weaken America's standing in the world and does not have the experience to stand up to rogue leaders like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

In the end, the election may hinge on several factors that are hard to judge: Will Obama's race matter to a significant number of voters? Will working-class whites who tended to support his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, turn out for Obama? And perhaps most important of all, will swing voters be more drawn to Obama's vision or to McCain's experience?

Whatever happens, interest in the election is at a record high, according to a Pew Research Center poll. As Andy Kohut, Pew's president, observed, "This could be a doozy of a year in terms of turnout."