Team Obama would insist that today’s much-discussed “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions” comment isn’t a political attack on McCain. Indeed, the subsequent reports are that Obama made the remark in the context of insisting that his campaign isn’t all about him, it’s about something greater than himself.
But once a candidate begins to insist that he alone represents “America returning to our best traditions,” he’s getting into an area where the implicit contrast is that his opponent isn’t “America returning to our best traditions.” (Some of us would vigorously contest the assertion that America has departed its “best traditions.”)
It is in a similar vein to the New York Times comment that Obama’s candidacy is “the ultimate test of racial equality.” The preposition sets up the election so that there is only one moral choice; a victory for McCain suggests the country doesn’t believe in racial equality.
If the country elects Obama in November, it doesn’t mean that the country hates old people, or veterans, or disregards McCain’s service. (Or at least there’s not sufficient evidence to support those contentions yet.)
One can believe that a President McCain would represent the best of American traditions — the virtue of sacrifice, the value of wisdom accrued over years of experience; the necessity for patience and fortitude in the course of triumphs and defeats over time. It would demonstrate the long-term benefit of sticking by a position one believes is simultaneously right and unpopular — like, oh, say, the surge — in the face of adversity, and seeing the long-term benefit.