“Like any politician at this level,” Barack Obama told USA Today on Thursday, “I’ve got a healthy ego.” Aides at the Republican National Committee jumped on the remark. Certain that Obama’s enormous self-regard is obvious to everyone, they e-mailed the quote immediately to reporters with the subject line: “to clarify any confusion.” On Friday, Obama gave the RNC material for another e-mail as he spoke in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. “On the day of the Iowa caucus, my faith in the American people was vindicated,” he told the crowdof 25,000 basking in the sunshine.
So does that mean if Iowa Democrats had voted differently, Obama would have lost his faith in the American people? That ego isn’t just healthy. It could compete in a triathlon. But of course that’s not what he meant. What Obama meant was that he had founded his candidacy on the return to a more honest and earnest politics and that voters, despite years of cynicism, had bought his pitch. He was counting on their faith, and they came through.
Still, there’s no question that Obama is a big fan of the junior senator from Illinois. But as he points out, most politicians are their own No. 1 fans. Running for president is an ego-fulfilling exercise: Pick me; I’m best. We vote for a person, not a committee or a party. John McCain often talks about his ego, too, but he publicly wrestles with the pull of self-regard far more than Obama does (even though his supporters would say he has more to brag about).
As both candidates make their final pitches to voters, the connection between ego and abnegation has reached its most intense level. McCain and Obama are each saying, “Hook your dreams to me, and we’ll go to a better place.” That is the final message of their speeches, and the very last sentiment they offer voters before leaving the stage. And their pitches, especially in these closing days of the campaign, reflect the races they’ve run and the visions they’re offering.
For the last two weeks, McCain has ended his campaign speeches with a call to fight. It’s a passage that first appeared at the end of his acceptance speech in St. Paul. After describing the country’s troubles, McCain pledges to solve them, saying, “I am an American, and I choose to fight.” This line sparks his crowds into roars of approval. McCain then implores people to join with him in the fight for justice, our children, and to fix the economy.
Like his campaign, McCain’s message is personal. His presidency will succeed, he says, because it will flow from him—his biography, his sturdy constitution, his sense of honor. “I have fought for you most of my life, and in places where defeat meant more than returning to the Senate,” he says before the crescendo oration. The speech ends with a list of all that “we” will do together.
Obama takes voters to the same place but by a different route. As he concludes his stump speech, he describes a note he received from a woman named Robyn, whose son suffered from a heart condition and whose insurance company refused to pay for it. “I ask only this of you,” Obama says, reading from her letter. “On the days when you feel so tired you can’t think of uttering another word to the people, think of us. When those who oppose you have you down, reach deep and fight back harder.” Obama concludes his speech with an even longer litany than McCain of what “we” will do together.
The message has always opened Obama to the charge that his campaign is a personality cult. When Obama said, “We are the change we believe in,” he was quoting a Native American expression that means we must all join together to effect change. Yet when Obama said it in a political context, many people heard it as: “I am the change you need to believe in.”
A good defense against the egoism charge, of course, is that people do believe in you. Throughout Obama’s campaign, he has presented himself as a vessel to carry out the will of the collective behind him. This was the message of one of the best-known passages of his old stump speech, the “Fired up, ready to go” story he told during the Democratic primaries. Obama described being in a funk and how he was shaken out of it by a local South Carolina politicianwho inspired her constituents by saying “Fired up!” to which the crowd responded, “Ready to go.”
In their closing remarks, McCain and Obama are offering different versions of leadership. McCain wants audiences to join together and fight with their vote, but his vision of leadership is a solitary one. In the end, he will do what he thinks is best. Obama presents himself as the candidate carried and sustained by the support of a movement that will continue to exert itself if he wins the White House.
No matter who wins, Americans will be relying on the president’s judgment. In that sense, both candidates are making the same point: Trust me. But their appeals, like the two men themselves, contrast sharply in style and substance. In four days, we’ll learn which closing pitch was more effective.