Obama's inspiring words

In an election that will take a prominent place in American history, the speeches delivered Tuesday night by the winner and the loser are worthy of note. John McCain's concession speech showed a side of his character that had been missing for months, while Barack Obama's victory address expressed sentiments seldom uttered by a U.S. president in decades.

McCain was so upright, gracious and inspiring in defeat that he was nearly unrecognizable. Was this the same candidate whose scattershot attack machine had slimed his opponent, this newspaper, urban dwellers, prominent scholars and anyone else who, as judged by his campaign, could inspire fear and mistrust in Middle America? McCain on Tuesday took the first steps in making up for his stunningly divisive campaign by offering profound words of unity and healing. It was this more moderate and hopeful version of McCain that prompted The Times to endorse him in the Republican primary, and it makes us wonder if the election's outcome might have been different had we seen more of it over the last three months.

Obama's victory speech was equally gracious to his opponent, and equally unifying. But it contained something else that raised an eyebrow, a theme he has mentioned before in stump speeches but that took on special resonance now that he's the president-elect.

"This victory alone is not the change we seek," Obama said. "It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other."

The notion that patriotism equates to a willingness to sacrifice for the nation hearkens back to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, but we haven't heard it much since. That may be because Jimmy Carter gave self-sacrifice a bad name. His 1979 “malaise” speech -- given at a time when, as now, the country was facing twin economic and energy crises -- is often blamed for darkening the nation's mood and worsening its woes. And yet the country ultimately benefited from the belt-tightening and energy conservation measures Carter promoted.

Since 1980, the more popular political strategy has been to promise Americans everything while asking them to give nothing. The results are clear. Our leaders cut taxes even while sending our troops to fight two Middle Eastern wars, causing the national debt to skyrocket. Fearing that fuel-efficiency mandates on vehicles would reduce choices for consumers, they failed to crack down on Detroit, contributing to an abrupt rise in oil prices. Unwilling to derail the gravy train for the financial services industry and real estate speculators, they failed to regulate the home mortgage market, resulting in today's economic meltdown.

Real leadership means having the courage to ask voters to sacrifice, and the skill to make them understand why doing so is ultimately in their best interest. Only time will tell if Obama is such a leader, but the signs are better than they've been for a long while.

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