In the end, the winner will be the loser

If the 49th presidential debate Wednesday night didn’t clarify which candidate you support, you probably don’t really want to vote anyway.

Despite the polls in Obama’s favor, we don’t know for certain whether he or John McCain will win Nov. 4. There are voters who don’t tell pollsters the truth (on race, for one thing). Another October surprise could roil the waters again.

We’re all free to speculate, but we don’t know if we’ll have a close outcome or a lopsided one.

We do know this is one election where the candidates are at polar opposites on nearly everything the role of government in our lives, tax policy, foreign involvements, dealing with terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to get the economy stable again, what to do about spiraling foreclosures, how to stimulate jobs and what constitutes fairness in a complex society where we all want to be moral but disagree vehemently on what that means.

There is an argument to be made that anyone who wants to be president in this horrible climate might be a few ballots short of a referendum. But since we have to have a president, we’re all complicit in the delusion that it’s a job that 1) is desirable and 2) is doable.

The Last Debate (sounds like a made-for-TV movie) showed a cool, cerebral, but dispassionate Obama against a fiery, aggressive, slightly desperate McCain. Each man convinced his base that he won; each man tried to lure the independents that sort of like one or the other but have delayed actually committing.

This is not an election where the cuter one wins, where congeniality decides the day, where the guy you’d most like to have a drink with is necessarily the one you want talking to you on your TV for four years. Our skinny wallets, rising joblessness and our many young men and women in combat make that obvious. The tasks ahead are so different from those Bush faced eight years ago it is almost unbelievable.

Without the economic meltdown, the contest between Obama and McCain would still be dead even. Watching President Bush’s deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty about what to do as the economy collapsed has been unnerving. We don’t know if a change in the White House will make a difference, probably not in the short run. But we know we need a different approach on many fronts.

It’s hard to imagine how either Obama or McCain would feel on Jan. 20, walking into the Oval Office and seeing the buck lying on the desk. All those promises! So few resources! So many problems demanding immediate attention! It’s multi-tasking on a whole new level.

That is why we have to choose a president with a penchant for choosing good people to advise him. The next vice president, either Joe Biden or Sarah Palin, won’t be just attending funerals and checking the health of the president. The next cabinet will have to be men and women of action, proven ability, intelligence, astonishing work habits and a well-honed ability to work with others. The next president will have more than 3,000 executive positions to fill; he must act quickly or government will stagnate.

No. 44 will have to work with a newly constituted but still Democratic Congress, not an easy task for anyone. Despite all the campaign promises, it’s Congress that actually allocates the money.

We need a president who is innovative, has amazing energy and stamina and is able to speak to us in a way that is reassuring but candid. Bush never prepared us for sacrifice; the next president will have no choice but to force us to make one tough decision after another.

There is one decision that is indefensible — the decision not to vote. If we don’t, we have no right to complain. And you know you’re going to want to let off steam during the next four years.


(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)