WASHINGTON - Former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for president on Sunday, criticizing his own Republican Party for what he called its narrow focus on irrelevant personal attacks over a serious approach to challenges he called unprecedented.
Powell, who for many years was considered the most likely candidate to become the first African-American president, said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he was not supporting Obama because of his race. He said he had watched both Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for many months and thought “either one of them would be a good president.”
But he said McCain’s choices in the last few weeks — especially his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his vice presidential running mate — had raised questions in his mind about McCain’s judgment.
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“I don’t believe [Palin] is ready to be president of the United States,” Powell said flatly. By contrast, Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, “is ready to be president on day one.”
Powell also told NBC’s Tom Brokaw that he was “troubled” by Republicans’ personal attacks on Obama, especially false intimations that Obama was Muslim and the recent focus on Obama’s alleged connections to William Ayers, a co-founder of the radical ’60 Weather Underground.
Stressing that Obama was a lifelong Christian, Powell denounced Republican tactics that he said were insulting not only to to Obama but also to Muslims.
“The really right answer is what if he is?” Powell said, praising the contributions of millions of Muslim citizens to American society.
“I look at these kind of approaches to the campaign, and they trouble me,” Powell said. “Over the last seven weeks, the approach of the Republican Party has become narrower and narrower.”
In an interview Sunday on Fox News, McCain said he was not surprised by the announcement.
“I’ve always admired and respected General Powell,” said McCain, who cited the endorsements he had received from former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger. “We have a respectful disagreement.”
Bolstering Obama’s international credentials
Obama said in an interview airing Monday on NBC’s TODAY that he welcomed Powell’s support and looked forward to discussing what role, if any, Powell might have in an Obama administration should he be elected.
“Here is what I can say for certain: He will have a role as one of my advisers. He has already served in that function even before he endorsed me,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “Whether he wants to take a formal role — whether there’s something that’s a good fit for him — I think is something that he and I would have to discuss.”
Powell, a retired Army general who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush before becoming secretary of state in the current administration, is one of the most highly decorated military officers of modern times and an admired figure in both parties. The Obama campaign is likely to cite the endorsement as an answer to critics and undecided voters who have questioned the foreign policy credentials of Obama, a first-term senator whose national experience amounts to four years in the Senate.
Powell said a major part of his decision to turn his back on his own party was his conclusion that Obama was the better option to repair frayed U.S. relations with allies overseas.
“This is the time for outreach,” Powell said, saying the next president would have to “reach out and show the world there is a new administration that is willing to reach out.”
In particular, he said, he welcomed Obama’s president to “talk to people we haven’t talked to,” a reference to Obama’s controversial statement that he would be open to direct diplomacy with Iranian leaders.
“I think that [Obama] has a definite way of doing business that will serve us well,” Powell said.
Won’t campaign for Obama
As recently as a month ago, Powell said that electing an African-American president would be “electrifying” for the world but that he remained undecided. The unsteadiness of the Republican campaign in recent weeks, especially on the economic crisis, went a long way toward pushing him off the fence, he said.
“It isn’t easy for me to disappoint Senator McCain as I have this morning,” said Powell, who emphasized that he would not campaign for Obama because of his admiration for McCain’s long record of service in the military and in Congress.
But as he examined both campaigns in the last few weeks, he said, he became “concerned” that “in the case of Mr. McCain, he was a little unsure how to deal with the economic problems.”
“Every day, there was a different approach,” he said, adding that he also “would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court.”
McCain would be a good president, Powell said, but Obama is “a transformational figure” who would be an “exceptional” leader.
“I truly believe that at this point in America’s history we need a president who will not just continue ... basically the policies we have followed in recent years,” he said. “We need a president with transformational qualities.”
For that reason, he said, “I will be voting for Barack Obama.”