EXPLAINING why he intends to vote for Barack Obama, former secretary of state Colin Powell said last week that "we need a transformational figure." Powerful economic and political forces are reshaping a world that the United States has dominated since the end of the Cold War, and Americans need a president with the understanding and the political gifts to guide the country to peace and security in a much-altered global framework.
It is in the nature of transformational leaders that no two are truly alike. Neither a President Obama nor a President John McCain should be expected to act as a carbon copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR's patrician background aside, his gusto for experimentation and his gift for inspiring confidence were particular not only to him, but also to a bygone America that enjoyed a different relationship to its leaders.
But that difference in circumstance does not negate the need for a transformational figure now. In the political world, such a figure is less likely to be a visionary than a leader who can recognize and adapt to such new realities. Indeed, the transformational politician must be free of binding ideological preconceptions. He or she has to possess the pragmatic flexibility to face facts, to acknowledge when established practices have lost their effectiveness, and to try new ways of doing things.
New realities demand new approaches. If President Bush has been obliged to cast aside his faith in pristine free markets and his contempt for international institutions, how much more will his successor have to change the federal government's way of regulating capitalism and coordinating economic decision-making with other countries? Bush's successor will also be called on to explore new ways of coping with not just an ineluctable energy crisis and the related challenge of climate change, but also nuclear proliferation and the ever-changing threat from stateless terrorist networks.
Neither McCain nor Obama will have anything like the opportunity Richard Nixon had to alter the Cold War balance of power via his opening to Mao Zedong's China. Neither McCain nor Obama can be expected to sign into law bills like the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, by which Lyndon Johnson ushered in the transformation of a segregated society. But the next president will need to transform relations with many governments around the world, revive America's reputation with people around the globe, and prepare Americans for the economic and environmental challenges of the future.
Powell is demonstrably right about the need for a transformational figure. We hope he is also right about Obama.