In the first presidential debate that used a “town hall” setting, Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama coolly handled his opponent Senator John McCain in a debate that the Republican was suppose to go on the offensive. Instead, evening may have reinforced the perception that a generational shift is at hand in the nation’s leadership as the televised images portrayed an older, at times grumpy, candidate in McCain versus a poised and collected young aspirant in Obama.
Going into the debate the conventional wisdom was that Senator McCain needed to deliver a body blow to Senator Obama in order to regain his footing in the race for the White House. Over the last week McCain saw his poll numbers sagging as the nation’s economic crisis reinforced voters desire for change and their disdain for the current White House administration. Further dragging McCain down is the performance of his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, who has become fodder for comedians, late night talk show hosts and a seeming regular contributor to Saturday Night Live. Just days before the debate the McCain camp signaled retreat in Michigan and saw the candidate trailing in Ohio; two battleground states that are symbolic of the nation’s economic woes.
In many ways, even the presence of debate moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC News helped frame the moment as past versus the present, as the longtime anchor seemed more comfortable chiding Senator Obama on violating the rules of the debate than doing likewise to Senator McCain. In fact, Brokaw may have provided the game-changing moment of the debate when he backed down from playing timekeeper as Senator Obama insisted that he be allowed to respond to Senator McCain’s criticism of his tax plan. When Obama responded “The Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one” it marked a clear departure from the gentile approach he had taken in the first debate. It was at that instance that the debate took on a different tone and it became clear that the Democrat was intent on counter punching his opponent.
While questions drawn from the audience varied in their focus, much of the debate on stage centered on each candidate’s position on the current mortgage bailout plan, their recommendations to resuscitate the economy and their position on taxes. It was hard keeping score as each candidate laid out their position, with nuances, and repeatedly pointed out what they claimed were inconsistencies in the other’s approach. Senator McCain stuck to the GOP playbook of tax cutting, claiming himself a Reaganite on taxes and claiming Senator Obama’s tax plan would harm small business owners, and as a result, stifle job creation. Senator Obama countered that McCain has supported and adhered to President Bush’s economic policy that allowed corporations free reign and fueled the current crisis. Obama insisted that his tax plan would cut taxes for middle class Americans while holding top earners, and wealthy corporate CEO’s accountable, by equitably distributing the burden across taxpayers.
Both candidates also staked out their turf on health care. Senator Obama made the point that his plan would be an important step toward an economic recovery while not burdening small business owners and making certain that children would be covered. Senator McCain attempted to portray Obama’s plan as a mandate that would cost the average citizen and burden small business owners. Obama pounced on McCain’s claim by referencing the reported unease business leaders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have expressed over his rival’s health care plan. “In fact, just today, business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which generally are pretty supportive of Republicans said that this [the taxing of employer based health care benefits under McCain’s plan] would lead to the unraveling of the employer based health care system.” Senator Obama also cited Senator McCain’s vote against the child health care bill in the Senate as evidence that the Republican would not deliver on his promise of providing health care.
It was on the issue of foreign policy where Senator Obama may have truly turned a corner. The subject has largely been considered the domain of Senator McCain due to his tenure in the Senate and his military career. During the debate a more aggressive and self assured Senator Obama refused to cede ground on foreign policy. While Senator McCain sought to take credit for calling for the “surge” in Iraq and faulting Obama for not admitting the mobilization has worked, Senator Obama countered by suggesting that McCain supported a war that had nothing to do with terrorism and has been a drag on the economy. Obama laid out his case for a new approach to international intervention by citing the Bush administration’s errant focus on Iraq while allowing al Qaeda to survive and flourish in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Senator McCain attempted to use Senator Obama’s previous statements on the use of force in Pakistan to paint him as inexperienced and naïve on foreign policy. McCain accused Obama of publicly announcing he would invade Pakistan. He said, “When you announce that you are going to launch an attack into another country, it’s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan. It turns public opinion against us.” It was an accusation Senator Obama quickly refuted by stating his position was that if Pakistan’s leadership was unwilling or unable to apprehend Osama bin Laden, as President he would authorize U.S. troops to enter the country to track him down and “kill him.” It was this exchange that provided Senator Obama with a defining moment, to once and for all put to rest any doubts in the eyes of the public over his appetite to engage on questions concerning the use of the military on foreign soil.
It was on the question of leadership that Senator Obama perhaps defined himself. As Senator McCain sought to portray himself as tested and ready to handle an international crisis, for the first time Obama took on the readiness issue head on with a strong rebut of McCain’s suggestion that the Democrat was not prepared to lead on the world stage. McCain attempted to use Teddy Roosevelt’s famous adage “speak softly and carry a big stick” against Obama by suggesting the Democrat was telegraphing his intentions by talking about entering Pakistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Obama would not let McCain have the last word. Ignoring moderator Tim Brokaw’s attempt to make him adhere to a time limit , Senator Obama, pointing directly at his opponent, charged, “Senator McCain this is the guy who sang, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,’ who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of “speaking softly.”
That final exchange defined an evening in which a political veteran, Senator John McCain, was unable to stop the momentum of his challenger, Senator Barack Obama, had for his part, Mr. Obama may have settled doubts in the minds of some voters over his ability to be “tough” and not back down from his positions. While most pundits suggested that the burden was on Senator McCain to perform well last night, in reality Senator Obama, despite doing well in the first debate, had an even higher hurdle. By all accounts, he cleared it with room to spare.