When the party nominees emerged, I was for the first time in my life satisfied with the choice before me. I've been voting in Presidential elections since 1980, and had never before seen both parties nominate candidates who I respected, and expected to serve well. Neither was perfect - for someone who leans increasingly in the libertarian direction, John McCain's eagerness to apply governmental power abroad, and Barack Obama's enthusiasm for applying it domestically, were off-putting. But I felt they were both competent men of good character - and in 2008 that means more than ideological compatibility.
Nevertheless, I did not dwell long on my decision. Whatever happens Tuesday, I fully expect at least basic competence for the next four years. Both candidates are capable of going down in history as good Presidents. But it's Obama who has the potential to be a great President.
One reason is simply the biggest element that separates good leaders from great ones - inspiration. John McCain may be able to effectively manage the country through the next four or eight years; he might accomplish many positive things; but I don't see him nurturing the optimism to pull us out of our economic doldrums, I don't hear him leading us back to international respect, and I don't feel a national consensus forming behind him. Barack Obama has that ability - the capacity to form a new American consensus, a direction forward into the 21st century.
The other major reason Obama can be one of the great Presidents is - yes - his race. Slavery, segregation, and discrimination have a long and ignominious history in our nation - that is the biggest contradiction to our status as a worldwide beacon of liberty. No single event will do more to redeem that legacy, to culminate the progress we have made, than the election of an African-American President. Consequently, of course, the Presidency would be an even greater burden on Obama's shoulders than on most - a failed administration would be severely damaging. Although I do believe he has the personal skills to succeed, the morass of Iraq and the depths of a new Depression could very well sink his Presidency. Those same risks, of course, await McCain, and I have not seen any evidence in this campaign that he would weather them any better.
And, speaking of the compaign, let me turn back to John McCain. As I said before, I started out with respect for him - he was a legitimate maverick within his party (and both parties could certainly use more of those), and whether I agreed with him or not he did seem to vote for his principles, not for misguided partisan loyalty. But, as he's abandoned the rational immigration policy he had supported, as he's compromised on torture, and mostly as he's sunk to the same ugly style of campaigning that was used against him in the 2000 primaries... It's become hard to maintain that respect.