VIRGINIA BEACH -- Democrat Barack Obama, looking forward to leading the country at a "difficult, challenging time," says his biracial background and the years he spent as a child overseas will help him be a better president than rival John McCain.
"Being president when things are easy — not to say being president is ever easy — but being president when peace and prosperity already exists is less of a challenge," Obama said in an interview Thursday with USA TODAY. "I signed up to make this country better."
Asked to name some of his assets, he emphasized his upbringing — growing up black with an absent father and a white mother and grandparents. "I come from a diverse background and so I think I understand a lot of different cultures," he said.
That background, Obama said, will allow him to meet "the challenges and threats of the 21st century … more effectively than John McCain."
His grueling, 21-month campaign has brought Obama, 47, to the brink of becoming the nation's first African-American chief executive. In the interview on his campaign jet as he powered through a four-rally, 1,500-mile day, the tired but confident Obama said he's been buoyed by the size of the crowds greeting him at his stops. "Like any politician at this level, I've got a healthy ego," he said.
The campaign has proven that "I'm able to bring a lot of smart people together and get them to cooperate instead of engaging in a lot of infighting," he said. "I think I've done that better than John McCain."
Obama doesn't rule out the possibility, if elected, of seeking an invitation to the international economic summit President Bush plans for November.
"I don't want to make those decisions right now," he said. "I do think it's important to remember we have one president at a time and lines of authority should not blur, especially at a time of crisis."
'Complacency' is a concern
Obama's schedule this weekend is a marathon of rallies throughout the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, with a timeout Friday night to join his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, for Halloween.
Afterward, Obama plans to head to neighboring Indiana for a late-night rally. His Saturday schedule begins in Henderson, Nev., and ends just before midnight in Springfield, Mo.
Confident enough about his Democratic base, Obama is spending the closing days of the campaign in traditionally Republican territory.
Thursday morning, he drew more than 13,000 to a baseball field in Sarasota, Fla., in a county that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 60 years, according to state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a local Democrat.
The crowds and long lines of people waiting to cast ballots at early voting places tell Obama that the months spent building a political organization "from the bottom up, from scratch" are paying off.
Obama's biggest worry? "Complacency," he says. "I worry that people start thinking these national polls (showing him ahead) mean something. They don't."
To underscore his concern, he's reminding supporters about New Hampshire, where polls on the eve of the state's crucial January primary showed Obama with a 10-percentage-point lead in a race that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., ended up winning by 2 points. "You never know what's going to happen until people actually cast their ballots," he said.
'The economy is not working'
Obama has been emphasizing the economy in the fall campaign. It's an issue he thinks works in his favor at a time when "the majority of Americans feel like we're on the wrong track, the economy is not working for the middle class."
The Illinois senator insisted his plans to eliminate some of President Bush's tax cuts would affect only "the wealthiest Americans." He said he would be able to reduce the tax burden on 95% of earners.
Obama said McCain, 72, is showing a generational difference by describing the Democrat's economic plans as socialism. "I think he's much more likely to look backwards and use the 20th century as a reference point," Obama said. "The times are different."
The son of a black Kenyan exchange student and a white American woman, Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He was not yet a teenager when the USA was torn by violent disputes over the war in Vietnam and civil rights. Coming of age without the "ideological baggage that came out of the '60s," Obama said he is able to go beyond "the same arguments of the left and right" and "see more clearly the opportunities we have right now."
He cited his positions on education, which include a call for federal funding combined with a demand for more parental responsibility. ("Government can't turn off the TV," is one of Obama's bigger applause lines in speeches.)
For all his critiques of McCain, Obama said he finds much to admire in his rival's record. He said he hopes to work with him after the election on issues such as climate change, immigration and ensuring that terrorism suspects are not tortured.
The two men will appear for brief interviews on ESPN during the Monday Night Football game between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. Obama, who was criticized for hedging his bets in the World Series, when he expressed support for the Philadelphia Phillies and admiration for the Tampa Bay Rays, had no problems picking a favorite in Monday's game.
"That's easy," he said. Steelers owner "Dan Rooney has been a great supporter."
Obama may have another reason: Since 1948, when the Redskins have won their last home game before the election — with one exception — the party in power has kept the White House, according to the American Enterprise Institute. The exception was in 2004, when President Bush won re-election after the Redskins had lost. So a defeat for the Steelers could also forecast one for Obama.