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Obama-McCain First Debate Analysis

Last night Senators Barack Obama and John McCain faced off in the first presidential debate at Oxford, Mississippi. That this debate even happened brought a huge sigh of relief to the debate's organizers and the McCain campaign in particular because of very real possibility that Barack Obama would have the stage to himself with tens of millions of viewers.

This debate was supposed to focus primarily on foreign policy, but because of the volatile stock market, the proposed $700 billion relief package, and the congressional wrangling over the contents of this bill, the first half of the debate focused on economic policy. This turn of events advantaged Barack Obama because it allowed him to debate on favorable terrain from the outset. Anytime the economy is the subject, Obama benefits. And because debate time consumed by the economy is debate time not consumed by foreign policy and military affairs, that served as a double bonus for Obama at McCain's expense. McCain clearly got stronger as the debate shifted to foreign policy, but because so much time was eaten up talking about the economy, he did not have as much time as he wanted to talk about the issues he was more comfortable with.

In terms of their demeanor, John McCain came across as tough and aggressive. He spoke confidently about foreign policy and his ability to go after the nation's enemies. He also connected with voters when he talked about his experiences meeting military families and troops. His narrative about visiting Iraq and meeting soldiers who wanted to extend their enlistments was particularly strong. However, he also may have come across as brusque and ill-spirited because of the dismissive attitude he had towards Obama. McCain barely looked at Obama and seemed more inclined to talk to the moderator instead. He also said several times that Obama was too naive and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. However, this is likely a losing argument because 1) this is a change election (note that the experience argument didn't work for Obama's rivals in the Democratic primaries), 2) it undercuts the relatively inexperienced Sarah Palin, and 3) anytime Palin is the subject, it reminds voters of her unsteady media interviews. Voters likely left the debate with two perceptions of John McCain: 1) confident and empathetic, and 2) cold and dismissive. The first perception is presidential. The second is not.

Barack Obama had a more steady performance in terms of his body language. He spoke with confidence too and was quick to correct the record in the event that McCain misrepresented him. He was not as reluctant to address McCain directly, but he missed several opportunities to fully exploit the openings McCain had given him. One particularly effective retort occurred right after McCain mentioned a bracelet he received from the parent of a fallen soldier. After McCain's moving narrative, Obama refused to let McCain have a monopoly on this issue by telling voters about a bracelet he received from the parent of another fallen soldier. That particular exchange mattered because it helped put those nagging doubts about Obama's patriotism to rest. As for his delivery, it was less professorial (read impersonal) than in previous debates, but he still seems to struggle with touching voters at a gut level. However, he performed adequately in this regard and likely came across as more composed than McCain.

Regarding substance, neither candidate was comfortable providing specifics when it came to addressing parts of their campaign platform that they'd have to sacrifice in light of the cost of the economic relief bill being debated in Congress. Their difficulty in answering this question was a matter of not wanting to offend any particular constituencies and giving each other a new campaign attack ad. It was painful watching them dance around the question, but as a political observer, it was easy to understand why they were so loath to actually answer it.

Both candidates missed a huge opportunity to talk about illegal immigration and border security. Obama did briefly touch on port security, but may have left border security unsaid because he needs the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. The Republican base could have been more energized had McCain talked about border security, but perhaps McCain didn't want to risk losing Latino votes in the same three states I just mentioned.

McCain should consider himself lucky that Obama did not attack him as fiercely as he could have for his campaign decisions over the past few days, such as suspending his campaign and debating without having secured an economic bill first. And Obama did him another favor by allowing him spend so long talking about taxes and spending. Astute political observers noticed that McCain often included lines from his stump speech when discussing spending (e.g., "We Republicans went to change Washington, but Washington changed us."). However, perhaps by letting McCain talk for so long about earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama was essentially letting McCain hang himself with his own rope. While earmarks are indeed low-hanging fruit, voters are likely more concerned about the value of their homes and the security of their jobs than the DNA of bears. So that could actually feed into the narrative the Obama campaign wants to portray of McCain as being out of touch.

Foreign policy is where the starkest differences between the two candidates could be observed. This is where the next campaign narrative will likely be born. John McCain talked a lot about Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Dwight Eisenhower, and Vietnam. And his foreign policy seemed more like a continuation of President Bush's. Barack Obama, on the other hand, had a more forward-looking worldview in that he wanted a greater emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation. If Barack Obama is able to turn John McCain into Bob Dole by making this election about the past vs. the future, McCain will be in a lot of trouble.

All in all, neither candidate scored a decisive victory last night. However, the fact that Obama and McCain debated to a near draw would suggest that McCain got the short end of the stick coming out of the debate. McCain has been losing ground in the polls and is trailing Obama in many of the battleground states. While he may have staunched the bleeding as far as the tracking polls are concerned, he likely did not do anything to significantly cut into Obama's lead. This foreign policy debate was his best opportunity to do so, but he did not get as much out of this debate as he needed to.

Another reason why Obama came out ahead in this debate is because he presented himself as reasonably competent on foreign policy. McCain is clearly more knowledgeable and more comfortable when discussing international and military affairs, but Obama at the very least displayed a sufficient understanding of the world and the United States' role in it. (Not an expert level of understanding, mind you, but an acceptable level.) Even though John McCain is not a part of the current executive branch, as a Republican, he is the incumbent. Barack Obama is the challenger and he came across as legitimate when talking about John McCain's main issue. McCain won't have the luxury of talking about Iraq, Iran, and Russia in the later debates because the issue on voters' minds this fall is clearly the economy.

Last month, I argued that the 2008 election could play out like several previous elections. Given the negative mood of the electorate, the poor economy, and dissatisfaction with the current administration, it seems like 2008 is playing out like 1980:

"The country is pessimistic and desperately wants to change direction. They're fed up with the current leadership, but don't want to take a gamble on the new kid on the block until he has successfully proven himself as at least marginally competent and acceptable. This is what happened with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an unpopular president and the nation was in a sour mood because of the Iranian hostage crisis and oil prices, but voters were reluctant to send Reagan to the White House. After he held his own in the debates, however, undecided and independent voters flocked to the California Republican in droves.

And now 28 years later, should Obama comes across reasonably decent and knowledgeable in the debates, this fairly close election will turn into a rout. If Obama bombs in the debates, the country will simply vote for McCain because even though they may disagree with his policies, they will at least say he is ready."
Based on their performances last night, in my estimation, Barack Obama is considerably closer to winning the White House than John McCain is. However, McCain still has a very real chance to win this election. But for McCain to win, he will need to change this election from a referendum on policy to a referendum on character. His last chance to do this will be at the second presidential debate which has a town hall format. McCain is clearly more comfortable with this format, as he is more conversational and better able to work small crowds. Obama will need to improve his ability to come across like he sincerely understands the struggles of the middle class. He clearly does understand these voters and their concerns, but it is not resonating with voters as much as it could. Because the final debate is on the economy, that won't be of much help to him. So McCain really needs to find a way to make the election about Obama again and not Sarah Palin or the economy.

Speaking of Palin, she was noticeably absent from the post-debate spin interviews. Joe Biden appeared on several channels to talk about why Obama bested McCain. However, Palin was nowhere to be found. This was very odd because one should expect a vice presidential candidate to be comfortable building up the presidential candidate up after a debate. Yes, Palin has had some rocky interviews before, but this is not hardball; it's basic cheerleading. If Palin's absence becomes one of the dominant stories coming out of this debate, McCain could have a very serious problem.

11 comment(s):

DB said...

McCain needed this one to go decidedly in his favor. He needed to come out the clear victor if he has any chance setting the tone for the next few days as each opportunity is dwindling. This would be an up hill battle though as his only strength in the debate was foreign policy which has no chance staying on top with the economy as is. Sunday when Congress votes on the bill, this debate will be forgotten which only hurts McCain.

Silence Dogood said...


A very good and thoughtful analysis, as usual.

A couple of other points:

I agree with what you are saying in how this pretty evenly matached debate favors Obama, because effectively a tie goes to the winner and Obama is currently in the lead. Also, you noted:

"While he may have staunched the bleeding as far as the tracking polls are concerned, he likely did not do anything to significantly cut into Obama's lead."

I think there is second possible scenario that could play out which is that McCain may get some loss of ground out of the debate if the narrative plays out that his unexplained "campaign suspension" (now further unexplained) was nothing but a bizaire political ruse?

I still believe it was an attempt to get Palin out of her debate with Biden, but once it appeared that wouldn't play, the debate was back.

Also, I think the best pairin of this debate/and perhaps election, was the one you alluded to previously of Dole/Clinton. That is Barack is the 'exciting new kid' and McCain is the 'angry old guy.' Clinton, even as the incumbent, could afford to sit back and look presidential and let Dole look old, and angry. Dole (and McCain) have an argument style that is often times set for reacionary debate with barbs and ripostes intertwined with substance. Clinton spoke more towards and audience i.e. like and executive, and appeared to be 'in control' and 'speaking from authority.' I think that could the same perception for independent objective voters with McCain and Obama. However, it was admittedly more pronouced in the Dole/Clinton debates than the McCain/Obama first debate.

Lastly, am I the only one who has a sneaking feeling (fear/guilty pleasure) in thinking that just before the VP debate Palin is going to have to "postpone" indefinitely due to the illness of her child, or another family/personal related issue?

For the record, I don't know if Biden will eat her for lunch, as many presume, or not - but I hear from good sources that the McCain camp is scared out of their wits that she will and may really hurt the enthusiasm for the entire ticket. And if I can hear that from intermediate level staffers, you know Palin has to know it - and that has to really cut into her confidence for her first real test on a national stage.

Sorry to babble so long.

Anthony Palmer said...


I heard similar rumors about discontent among McCain staffers. Are you familiar with Ed Schultz? He has a radio show and mentioned that debate prep with Palin has been "disastrous," according to McCain's aides. Of course, this can all be a way of lowering expectations, but I think expectations for her are MUCH higher than they are for Biden--a known quantity. This debate will serve as both a debate AND an interview for Palin, and that's what makes this so critical for her.

I think I know what the real problem is with Palin. It's not her ideology. It's not her personal background. And it's not her experience or relative lack thereof. It's her level of engagement. She may have been great at managing Wasilla and Alaska, but she seems genuinely incurious about the broader world and unprepared to handle the responsibilities such engagement requires. There's no engagement there. No sense that she wants to travel abroad or meet foreign leaders or learn about international relations. Maybe she doesn't feel she needs to, but this is very disconcerting.

I, for one, hope she stays and participates in the debate. That will be the highest rated debate in history. I hope Biden doesn't address her at all. But then again, if he does attack her, the sympathy vote might not rescue her because most people outside the GOP base are increasingly turned off by her. That might not be her fault, as McCain's handlers may be over-scripting her. But whatever it is, the doubts are definitely there now.



The fallout from his campaign suspension and the drip drip drip of revelations that he is not as engaged in this process as he is portraying is only further wounding him. David Brooks has a good column out now talking about the biggest problem McCain has. He's running without a message. His campaign is based solely on tactics. We know Obama is for "change" and a "departure from the last 8 years." But what is McCain for? Tax cuts? Victory in Iraq? There's no overarching theme there, so he seems rudderless. It seems to be about nothing more than finding ways to keep the polls close instead of giving voters a reason to get excited about his candidacy.

Anthony Palmer said...

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Anonymous said...

Anthony, thanks for the response. I have seen some of the articles regarding the "disastrous" debate prep. For the record, and so I don't sound like I am trying to play myself off as "conected" to insider talk on the McCain camp when I am not - I don't know/have spoken with anyone who as actually at a debate prep session for her or saw a mock press interview. I have talked with people who are reasonable up there in the McCain campaign that may not techincally shape the strategies no doubt have meaningful input with the final decision makers.

Their thoughts on Palin are higher than anxiety, there is some actual fear there regarding the debate. I would love to talk to/hear from someone who actually saw this mock debate/interview. I am waiting on a response to find out if such a thing actually took place.

The other thing I hear, that is pretty corrobaratable from public information, is that Palin has become an unweildy quantity that the McCain camp does not have any idea what to do with right now. So effectively they have done nothing, or at least as little possible with her because that is the least potentially damaging.

However, as you and others have started to point out, holding that hot potato(e) has started to become damaging all by itself. In another two weeks...mayve to a large degree.

Silence Dogood said...

Previous comment was posted by Silence Dogood

Brett said...

That's some interesting information, Silence. It's not particularly surprising - Palin always struck me as a Campaign Prop in a period where it isn't acceptable for a VP to simply be a Campaign Prop anymore - but still interesting, and slightly amusing. It's also a sign that the McCain campaign really didn't do much in the way of planning with her, besides doing rallies.

One of the things that has to be remembered is that you have to distinguish the perceived public reaction from your own personal reaction. I personally thought that Obama came across as weak on Iraq (where he conceded the terms of the argument to McCain, implicitly), and on Russia, where he did nothing but advocate a weak, watered-down version of McCain's policy. I doubt, though, that the public really perceived this.

Silence Dogood said...

Brett, I felt Obama was particularly weak (or omissive) on Iraq he failed to point out that surge or not, we effectively have more troops there not than before. That is not a good direct to be moving. More importantly, while it has apparently quelled the violence among American troops (no real knowledge of how it has effected violence overall).

The real issue is that we are no closer to a viable Iraqi government than we were when we started. Also, we have/and still be, inadvertently overseeing the an ethnic cleansing of Iraq.

Obama failed to point out that the surge has quelled the number of troop deaths, but that does not mean it has really worked in any what shape or form. If that was any measure of the surge "working" if that is all we have to show for it, then pulling out tomorrow would be really effective as it would bring U.S. troops deaths in Iraq to zero, and effectuate the same amount of political progress the surge has, which is none.

Thomas said...

Following a well-organized and moderated debate (kudos to Jim Lehrer and PBS), I decided to sleep on it before offering any commentary. My initial reaction was that neither candidate did very well. After reading many blog reactions I believe several Obama supporters (including myself) were too critical of his performance. I cannot speak for McCain supporters. To a certain extent I think this is understandable and to be expected, and I don't necessarily believe it's such a bad thing. I believe the most ardent supporters on both sides hold their candidates to stricter, albeit sometimes unrealistic, standards. There's nothing wrong with wanting your candidate to excel, but there really isn't any need for your candidate to try to crush his opponent.

In retrospect, I believe both candidates did what they had to do in the first debate. I think Obama looked, acted, and spoke like someone who could be president. And I believe McCain lived up to (maybe exceeded) expectations considering his reputation for economic issues and the possibility of a debate postponement. McCain was on the offensive and attacked Obama because he is currently trailing in a majority of national and state polls.

Anyway, I thought both candidates demonstrated knowledge of the issues at hand regardless if anyone agrees with them or not. And I believe McCain, with a few exceptions, was speaking to his base more than Obama. I think this benefits McCain more because that is how Republicans win elections. That is exactly how they won in 2000 and 2004.

Overall, I thought McCain looked the most uncomfortable on stage. I believe this involves many factors: he's trailing, he realizes he has to play by the Republican playbook to a certain extent, he's admitted he's not very knowledgable about the economy, and the economy is not very good for a candidate who is from the same party whose had most of the control the last eight years.

Debate Scorecard and winners:
Presentation: Obama
Demeanor: Obama
Knowledge of Issues: Tie
Red Meat: McCain
Expectations: McCain

Overall: Tie
Obama's strengths were overall image and knowledge of issues.
McCain's strengths were meeting expectations and knowledge of issues.

Brainmaggot said...

My fellow Americans this Monday morning brings no change in our financial situations congress has decided to go forward with there plans to bail out wall street. no matter what they tell you they are doing or call it, that is exactly what it is. Once signed you will be paying executive salaries and bonuses and own worthless assets. we the people will be excepting the results of both there bad judgment of wall street and congress. Congratulations America they will never pay it back and if they did you would not reap the benefits congress would. well the foreign governments you bailed out they are your enemies and would sooner see you dead. What you need to bear in mind is that you have entrusted a government to over see this that has no fiscal responsibility none zip zero. These are the same people that said “they would keep social security in a secure lock box” and you can see where that got us. How much more will you chose to endure before you see them for what they are thieves liars cheats and criminals that act above the laws they write and we follow. My limit I fear was some time ago and the differences are irreconcilable even if I found a good job now I can not stop. These people have no power over us and the acts committed are two many and without remorse. A wise man once said “Give me liberty or give me death”. I have pursued happiness only to have it taken from me one to many times and I know there are among you more like me. This is it America make you choice and chose your side I chose to be against this travesty there is no side in democrat or republican they are just part of the same beast that has grown fat and stupid in its old age. This country was given birth in revolution its first cries where the cries of the dead and dieing, we strived to form a more perfect union. I fear now that we have failed we put our trust in people that amazingly time and time again can not be voted out of office who have spent and spent and spent for the last 40 years like the spoiled rich children that they are. The only way to save ourselves is revolution and reestablish the constitution set penalties as high as death for these transgressions in the future. This is not something I want but I truly feel this is the only solution for our children sake this is the only solution.

Anonymous said...

The debate pointed out one thing before anyone opened their mouths. McCain looked old and decrepit, especially compared with a much younger man. That made many of McCain's ideas look old also.

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