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Friday, October 24, 2008

The Candidates: They're Ambivalent and They Can't Help It. No One Can

by: John P. Briggs, MD and J.P. Briggs, PhD,

t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. (Photo:

McCain, Obama and the psychology of decisions.

The bailout crisis at the beginning of October dramatically illustrated the decision-making psychologies of the two presidential candidates - that is, their ability to deal with ambivalence.

With the financial debacle coming to a head, John McCain abruptly called for a "suspension" of the campaigns and rushed down the corridors of the Capitol in an effort to clinch the bailout deal. Instead, he threw a hand grenade into the negotiations, giving cover for a majority of House Republicans to humiliate their own party leaders and vote against the bill. He announced to his Republican Senate colleagues that he was prepared to act the maverick: "I appreciate what you've done here, but I'm not going to sign on to a deal just to sign a deal. Just like Iraq, I'm not afraid to go it alone if I need to." For a moment, one of his fellow Republicans said, "You could hear a pin drop. It was just unbelievable."

Instead of taking the lead in the discussions with the president - discussions McCain had urged as a way to force Obama off the campaign trail - McCain sat silently. For friend and foe alike, the turnabouts by McCain were puzzling.

By contrast, Barack Obama regularly telephoned Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and others, and preferred to let his Congressional colleagues work out revisions to the bill. He met with his diverse group of economic advisers to hear opposing opinions. He refrained from offering his own plan, he said, to avoid roiling the markets. He thought the candidates should debate the economy and consult with their party, but should stay away from politicizing the discussions in Congress. Nevertheless, after McCain pressed the president for a conclave, Obama attended the meeting and cogently presented the Democrats' case while McCain remained angrily silent.

In the end, both men decided to support the revised plan, but Obama's decision came after fewer conflicting signals and with more clarity. His widely quoted parable about the need to support the bailout explained in dramatic terms the ambivalence that everyone felt, while offering a nonpartisan metaphor to resolve that ambivalence in their own minds.

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