McCain and Obama Face Off

Darrell M. West
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

September 27, 2008

It was a presidential debate that took place amidst the most dramatic political and economic landscape in recent memory. John McCain and Barack Obama met for their first televised encounter with an estimated 80 million people watching. Did the candidates have an answer to the worsening economy? What were their visions for foreign policy and national security? Would McCain’s vaunted experience allow him to pin Obama on the ropes?

Midway through the 90-minute debate, Obama conveyed the better economic vision. The Illinois Senator was able to cross the threshold that every young challenger must meet. He was up to the job of commander in chief and could step in and be president on day one. Obama outlined point-by-point what Congress should do. It should limit chief executive compensation at compromised firms. There should be independent oversight over administration plans. The $700 billion bailout proposal should be phased in over time with opportunities for Congress to adjust spending depending on economic circumstances. People on Main Street should receive help, not just Wall Street titans.

Despite a dramatic suspension of his campaign, a flight back to Washington, D.C., and a contentious meeting with President George Bush and congressional leaders, McCain whispered a weak “I hope so” when asked if he supported the general bailout principles that his opponent had enumerated. Fears that McCain would torpedo the agreement and run as a populist outsider against Wall Street bailouts were averted.

Obama was clear and direct as he explained the crisis to ordinary Americans. The culprit was “eight years of failed economic policies” enacted by President Bush and supported by McCain. Many times during the presentation, Obama repeated his Siamese Twin strategy of linking McCain to the unpopular Bush.

The phrase “eight years” echoed throughout the night and will be repeated endlessly over the closing weeks of the campaign in ads and on the campaign stump. With 84 percent of Americans in national polls believing the country is headed in the wrong direction, Obama had a simple strategy to follow: McCain supports Bush and enough is enough.

For his part, McCain had a more difficult presentational task. He had to outline his issue differences with Obama while simultaneously distancing himself from his fellow Republican Bush. Triangulation is hard to convey in two-minute answers and McCain struggled in the economic part of the debate to separate himself from Obama and Bush.

When the terrain shifted back to the evening’s stated agenda of foreign policy, however, the GOP nominee delivered a more effective presentation. On topics from Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran, North Korea, and Russia, McCain was quite articulate at outlining his differences with Obama. The two clearly disagreed on the effectiveness of the president’s Iraq policy and whether an American president should meet with the counterparts of rogue nations.

The night’s most fiery moment came when Obama invoked McCain foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger to argue it was okay to meet with world leaders having views fundamentally at odds with the United States. McCain angrily rebutted that claim and cited his years of friendship with Kissinger and superior knowledge of Kissinger’s foreign policy views to say Obama simply was wrong.

Obama was overly timid in outlining his foreign policy views. Although he displayed familiarity with world leaders and foreign policy challenges, McCain sometimes put Obama on the defensive and forced his rival to spend more time rebutting charges than explaining his own views on foreign policy. McCain’s strongest argument came at the end of the debate when he claimed his rival lacked the knowledge or experience to be president. But since this accusation is central to the GOP campaign, it is a criticism McCain should have emphasized far more throughout the television debate.

In the world of political communications, repetition is vital to voter persuasion. Candidates can’t make an argument just once, they must pound it home so it is readily apparent to viewers.

With the national agenda having shifted decisively to the economy, Obama has opened an advantage over McCain in many national polls. With no gaffes on either side, no knockout punches, and no memorable lines, the debate did not alter a political landscape that has grown more favorable to Barack Obama this month. In that regard, Obama won the political debate. He answered critics claiming he lacked the experience to be president, and did so in a clear and articulate manner. In the battle over “being presidential” and having a policy vision, Obama demonstrated he was ready for prime-time.