I am anxious about Barack Obama picking up that phone, but I would be anxious if Hillary Clinton picked it up as well. Let's face it, we'd all be anxious about whoever picked up that phone (as all of America was when it was J.F.K. in the Cuban missile crisis).
As I look back at the group of Presidents since J.F.K., I think the person I would be least anxious about picking up that phone would be Ronald Reagan. And even I am surprised by my choice. How and why would I pick someone who was a running mate of Bonzo?
Of all the Presidents since J.F.K., Reagan had three of the central qualities of great leaders: 1) a vision and the will to commit to it; 2) talented people; 3) the ability to engage the talent of those people.
Of the two Democratic candidates, Obama seems to be more successful than Clinton in the vision department, the ability to surround himself with talented people (at least with regard to running a campaign), and the ability to engage the passionate involvement of those talented people. True his speeches often seem sweeping and less detailed in nature, but Clinton's seem to focus on specific issues without a vision. If we look at details as the charms on a bracelet and vision as the bracelet, Obama seems to epitomize the bracelet, Clinton the charms (without the charm).
If many of our problems are the result of charms (or silos if you prefer) of special interest groups competing against each other in an uncharming, "zero sum" fashion, it would seem that we are in sore, if not dire, need to find a way to get all the special interest groups on the same page and pulling together in the same direction.
I question Clinton's ability to: 1) articulate a single, ennobling and compelling vision; 2) surround herself with talent (reference her changing staff and subsequent finger pointing, responsibility evading squabbles between them); 3) engage her staff in a passionate call to action manner that works.
Obama has shown himself to be able to paint a vision and to enroll people passionately in service of it. He has also shown himself to be someone who can select talented people with regard to running a highly successful campaign. Whether this is enough to successfully lead a country remains to be seen.
But it does seem clear that a leader who can't articulate a compelling vision, select talented people, or engage them has less of a chance for success.
(c) 2008 Mark Goulston