or political reasons, Barack Obama cannot stress it on the campaign trail, but the stakes in 2008 are simple: the restoration of our image in the world and our image of ourselves. Everything else flows from that.

Americas prestige in the world is central not for grandiose reasons but strictly pragmatic ones. Every big international problem nowadays must be addressed multilaterally, from terrorism to climate change to Russian aggression to Iranian nukes to AIDS to poverty. Without global cooperation, none of these issues can be confronted. And without American leadership, global cooperation will be spotty at best. The United States as “the essential nation” is not neocon exceptionalism run amok; its a straightforward description of the bare requirements for problem solving in a complex world.

I think of it like the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom gets his friends to help him paint Aunt Pollys fence. The United States cant and wont paint the fence of global problems by itself. We have to charm and manipulate other nations into helping, or well all get a whipping.

Our allies and their people understand the stakes. Thats why 200,000 well-wishers showed up to hear Obama in Berlin in July. I was there, and met Germans who had organized Obama clubs in their suburban towns. They wore “Obama Tsunami” T-shirts. Why? Partly because hes cool, but mostly because they know that only Obama has a chancejust a chanceto lead again as the Americans did for so many years. The Germans I talked to ached for it.

McCain would try to lead, too, but in a twentieth-century way that would attract few followers. American prestige would remain at its current low levelor, if he indulged his instinct for saber rattling, it would sink further. By the time another president who could inspire the world came along, China would be nearly the largest economy on earth and no doubt determined to impose its values on at least some parts of the world. The window for restoring American prestige is very short.

The stakes are high domestically, as well, and not just because Obama has some only-Nixon-could-go-to-China opportunities on issues like curbing entitlements and bringing more accountability to education.

In recent years, we have increasingly perceived ourselves as a tolerant people, willing to think anew about the prejudices of the past. Much of the economic dynamism of the countrythe vibrancy we cherishcomes not just from the fact of this openness but from our psychic investment in it. Even when the government lets us down badly, as it has in the recent past, we think of ourselves as a good and decent people. Misguided, perhaps, and easily fooled. But good. Even Arabs who hate the U.S. government under either party always insist that they like the American people.

So what happens if we wake up the day after the election to find that the nation has rejected an exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent candidate in a year when 80 percent of voters think were on the wrong track? To what would we attribute Obamas defeat? The inescapable conclusion would be that, no, America is not ready for a black president after all.

Out, damnd spot! The stain of Americas original sin would spread further yet, pushing us into a past we had hoped to transcend. The normal pain of one party losing an election would be intensified enormously by the pain of history. Republicans (who barely tolerate McCain) wouldnt cheer much; they would know in their hearts that the party of Lincoln had completed its metamorphosis into the party of cynicism.

The nation would survive. McCain might even prove a decent president. But we would end 2008 with less respect in the world and less faith in ourselves, the faith on which all else depends.

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Jonathan Alter

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathanalter. Jonathan Alter is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.