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Campaigning in War Time: What Obama Does Understand

September 27, 2008

Wall Street investors have failed to make a buck.  The government burns the midnight oil debating a $700 billion buyout plan.  And war in the Middle East continues.  And yet, the first presidential debate went on as scheduled with both major candidates present.  But was it the right decision in light of these apparently dire national circumstances?  In a word… yes.

Sen. John McCain’s appearance on the stage Friday night was in serious doubt until a few hours before the scheduled broadcast.  Earlier in the week, he had called for a suspension of his own campaigning efforts and a postponement of Friday night’s debate so that he might attend to business in Washington.  He invited Sen. Barack Obama to join him.  This was a risky political gambit on the part of McCain to portray himself to the American people as an American first and politician second who cares more about fixing what ails our nation that propagating his own political platform.  Ultimately, it appears to have failed as he has dropped nearly 3 points in the Gallup Poll from an almost even heat with Obama on Thursday [although that report has been disputed].  Most Americans, it seems, would rather have their political candidates handle their senatorial duties in the stride of their campaign rather than closing up shop in order to head back to Washington.  It appeared to be a political stalemate, but, in the end, McCain blinked.

At least on this issue, Obama understood something McCain apparently did not.  Namely, that in spite of a great economic crisis, life goes on and duties must be fulfilled.  The American people want to hear from the men they are considering electing as Commander-in-Chief.  McCain called for a suspension of campaigning in light of our nation’s economic crisis so that he might be able to focus more intently upon debating in Washington rather than debating Obama in Mississippi.  Obama, on the other hand, made a statement that I have to respect:

With respect to the debate it’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who is, in approximately 40 days [Actually, the president-elect won’t be taking over the reins until January 20, 2009- Ed.], will be responsible for dealing with this mess.  I think it is going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once. . . . It is more important than ever to present ourselves to the American people and try to describe where we want to take the country.

Obama’s statement (no doubt just as subtly motivated by political calculation as McCain’s own gambit) reminded me of C. S. Lewis‘ classic essay/address, “Learning in War Time” (October 22, 1939)  Here, Lewis entertains the question raised by some of his countrymen during the commencement of World War II as to whether formal education should continue in light of the present crisis:

What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we- indeed how can we- continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Having raised the objection, Lewis proceeds to rebut it with his signature rhetorical skill:

Human life has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. . . . Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons.  They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.

Lewis reminds us that no crisis should ultimately prevent us from doing our duty and moving on with life.  Life will never be “normal.” That is not to say that there are not exceptional circumstances that might temporarily delay our normal course of action such as a city-wide power outage that forces businesses, schools, and churches to temporarily alter their plans.  Yet, there is no crisis that should cause us to give up on the future.  It is unacceptable to resolve to commit monomaniacally to one crisis at the expense of our other duties.  As Lewis says again, “if anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention- so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim- he would be a monomaniac.”

So, at least for tonight, I will give Obama credit that he does understand the importance of this particular issue.  In a time of national crisis, a presidential candidate needs to be able to tell the people what direction they seek to bring to the country.  Thinking from a spiritual perspective, a Christian who simultaneously considers himself an alien in this world while seeking to save souls through proclamation of an eternal Kingdom of Christ is also under the expectation to live his life well, doing good to all men as he has opportunity.  For our Lord Jesus, preparing to build His Church, this included attending wedding parties.  Indeed, even “St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs” [by assuming Christians may attend dinner parties given by pagans].  But whatsoever the Christian does, he does it all to the glory of the Lord. (Colossians 3:23-24)

“Learning in War Time” and other C. S. Lewis essays are available in The Weight of Glory: And Other Essays (1949).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Kelly Reid permalink
    September 27, 2008 11:14 pm

    First off I am a Canadian and therefore have no real dog in this political fight. However, I do have my thoughts in regards to this post.

    I understand the argument that the world doesn’t stop for us to deal with special events (either negative or positive) yet I am not sure how Obama gets any sort of credit for placing the campaign first. The last time I checked both Obama and McCain were elected representatives of the people. At this point in time we are on the verge of what some are calling a 100-year recession (or dare I say depression) and McCain decides to halt campaigning in order to get better acquainted with the situation so as to be better informed to make wise decisions.

    Obama makes the comment, “It is more important than ever to present ourselves to the American people and try to describe where we want to take the country.” I believe describing where we want to go involves knowing where we are at right now. Obama has a dream of where he wants to go, but how do you get there if you don’t know where you are at in the beginning. Both McCain’s and Obama’s economic policy dreams a truly effected by the current crisis, and the solutions to problems two months ago are different than the solutions today.

    In summation the one who decides to stop campaigning to become better acquainted with the current economic crisis shows us more positive leadership and character qualities than the one who decides preparing for a debate in Mississippi is more important than fulfilling his job as the Senator of Illinois.

    Though on the other hand they are both savvy politicians and every move they make for the next 40 odd days are cooly calculated for maximum political advantage. How about neither of them get any credit until one of them can back up their words with action starting on Jan 20.

  2. September 28, 2008 2:40 pm

    Good thoughts, Kelly. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your interaction with my post. I might have been a little hard on McCain, of course, but I’ll stick to my post. I especially don’t think he should have pulled out of the debate … only to jump back in at the last moment. That brings back memories of 1992 and the Ross Perot campaign (again, maybe I’m being too critical as that was a completely different situation) 🙂

  3. Dustin R. permalink
    September 28, 2008 4:09 pm

    I agree with Kelly on this one, Adam. You have to remember McCain was elected Senator first and foremost and I believe his priority should be there. Campaigning is second to that. We know President Bush (and many other Democratic political leaders) think this finanical situation as an unprecendented crisis requiring careful consideration and quick action. McCain was wise in wanting to better understand the problem and assist in the situation. That is his job as senator and his decision to go to D.C. to assist shows he takes his duties seriously. Debates can be rescheduled, the economy cannot… we do still have over a month before the election to hear from the candidates.
    But I also think McCain made a gross error in deciding to attend the debate after he stated that he would not if a bailout agreement hadn’t been made. Politicians should stand by what they say unless there is strong reason for them to change their mind. That is a separate discussion, though.

  4. September 28, 2008 7:30 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, Dustin. I commend you for being critical of anyone who commends one politician and criticizes another. Even if it is me in this instance. 🙂 We need more fair and balanced, objective analysis of politics.

    Indeed, McCain’s biggest error is probably his off-then-on stance on the debate. I commend McCain as a true patriot who believed he acted in the best interest of his country. Yet, I think Obama had the upper hand on this one and the fact that he was willing to portray himself as one who was able (or at least willing, as the case may be ;-)) to tackle various issues at once makes him look like a stronger leader. That is another reason I think McCain made a calculated but extremely risky and hasty decision that obviously did not work out. I’ll stick to my guns on this one, McCain shouldn’t have called for a timeout if he wasn’t prepared to follow through with it. But like you said, it seems we are getting off on a separate discussion.

  5. Adam Embry permalink
    September 29, 2008 6:52 pm

    Thanks for clarifying, Adam. I guess the ability to do two things at once is so important that’s why Obama voted “present” or didn’t vote at all numerous times in the Illinois and US Senate.

  6. September 29, 2008 8:50 pm

    Adam E.:

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