As long ago as 2000, Sen. John McCain similarly invited voters to “believe in a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests.” Winning the GOP nomination has hardly changed his mind on this point.
Obama and McCain appear to agree that Americans should have a common, national purpose. Notice the singular, indefinite article. Americans do not pursue a multitude of purposes but rather, one purpose.
The desire for a higher purpose is nothing new. Progressives have been demanding that American follow a national purpose for a century at least. The Progressive writer Herbert Croly (the founder of the New Republic) saw the American state as means of attaining a common, national purpose which he identified with “a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.” Obama and his supporters would no doubt agree.
Croly also had nothing but contempt for such self‐interested activities as business and the pursuit of wealth. Individuals, he argued, should rise above mere commerce. Sen. McCain believes, as he put it during the GOP debate prior to the California primary, that “patriotism not profit” motivates a true leader.
Hence McCain believed that Mitt Romney, a mere businessman turned one‐term governor, could never truly lead the nation.
To be sure, the two candidates would pursue different ideas about our common purpose. President Obama would seek to redistribute wealth to reduce inequality. The voters who receive this windfall would be satisfied and no doubt supportive of the policy and the new president. Some voters who would be taxed to provide the money for redistribution would also be satisfied.
But others who pay the taxes to support the redistribution would not be happy. They might deny that the nation has a common purpose to make wealth more equal. At that point, the nation would not have a common purpose but rather disagreement about what the government should do.
Sen. Obama believes such disagreements can be overcome by leaders who inspire citizens to transcend their disagreements. That transformation is unlikely. The economist Alberto Alesina has found that Americans are not bothered much by inequality compared to Europeans.
Sen. McCain has emphasized the importance of winning the war against terrorism. It is true that threats to national survival unite a nation. After Pearl Harbor, the nation worked largely as one to defeat the Axis powers. The same could be said prior to 1968 about the Cold War in general; almost all Americans supported efforts to stop the spread of Communism.