The Public Eye: Obama Wins First Debate

By Bob Burnett
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:28:00 AM

The 2008 presidential election’s initial debate was one of the best contests in recent memory. There were no memorable bon mots or gaffes, and both candidates had convincing moments. Overall, Barack Obama had the stronger performance. 

There were three elements of the debate. The first third of the 97-minute dialogue focused on the economy, specifically the pending financial recovery plan. The second two-thirds of the University of Mississippi contest focused on foreign policy. The third element was the candidates’ deportment: Would Obama look presidential and would John McCain lose his temper? 

The first element was the economy. Moderator Jim Lehrer asked McCain and Obama for their positions on the pending financial recovery plan and followed up by getting them to hypothesize how the roughly $700 billion dollar price tag would affect their presidential objectives. Obama struck a populous tone that culminated in the observation, “In order to make the tough decisions we have to know what our values are and who we’re fighting for and our priorities.” Obama indicated that he was fighting for working families: “If we are spending $300 billion on tax cuts for people who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them, and we are leaving out health care which is crushing on people all across the country then I think we have made a bad decision.” 

In contrast, McCain didn’t address the specific needs of working Americans but instead hyped his reputation as a “maverick,” someone who would cut wasteful federal spending and “hold people accountable.” In the most memorable exchange of the first 30 minutes, McCain suggested “a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs.” Obama responded, “The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel,” and indicated he would increase funds to programs like early childhood education while defunding others, such as the extent of the military operation in Iraq. 

Immediately after the debate, CBS News conducted a poll of uncommitted voters, who thought Obama won this segment: “66 percent felt he would make the right decisions about the economy, while 42 percent felt McCain would do so.” A CNN poll of debate watchers found: “By a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was ‘more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you.’” 

The second element of the presidential debate addressed national security and foreign policy: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and “the likelihood ... that there would be another 9/11-type attack.” Both presidential candidates had their moments: McCain aggressively defended continuation of the war in Iraq: “we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor.” Obama firmly stated his opposition to that war and got off one of the best lines of the night: “John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007.” 

Viewers listening to the 30-minute discussion of the candidates’ differences on Iraq and Afghanistam understood Obama and McCain fundamentally disagree. Obama feels the focus of the war on terror should be Afghanistan and the eradication of al Qaeda. In contrast, McCain believes “Iraq is the central battleground.” Obama and McCain had similar, if less striking, differences on the issues of Iran and Russia. When Obama raised the key issue of “proliferation of loose nuclear weapons,” McCain didn’t have a rejoinder. 

According to the CBS poll, uncommitted voters felt McCain won this segment of the debate: “Forty-eight percent of these voters think Obama would make the right decisions about Iraq. Fifty-six percent think McCain would.” Nonetheless, the CNN viewer poll found that “voters thought that Obama ‘seemed to be the stronger leader’ by a 49-43 margin.” 

These contradictory can be explained by the third debate element: the candidates’ deportment. Although it was a debate, and the moderator tried to get Obama and McCain to talk to each other, the Arizona senator refused to look at Obama and maintained a chilly, abrasive manner the entire time. As a result, the CNN poll found Obama scored higher on “connectedness” while viewers noted McCain “spent more time attacking his opponent.” 

Obama’s debate objective was to look presidential and connect with viewers. Polls indicated he accomplished that. McCain’s job was to play to his experience and not lose his temper. He accomplished the former but his churlish demeanor alienated some viewers. 

According to CBS News, “Thirty-nine percent of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. Twenty-four percent thought John McCain won.” Focus groups gave the win to Obama. The CNN viewer poll “had Obama winning overall by a margin of 51-38.” 

Going into the presidential debate, Obama had a slight lead in national polls and a strong lead when voters were asked who would do a better job with the economy. Based upon his strong performance at the University of Mississippi, Obama is likely to strengthen his lead in both categories and to bolster his image as a potential commander-in-chief. Of the three debate formats, only the first was supposed to favor McCain. That’s good news for Obama. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at