Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., squared off on the financial and economic crises of America as well as the war on Iraq in the first presidential debate of the 2008 election season Friday night at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
“We are going through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said in response to a question about the candidates’ financial recovery plans from the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, host of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS.
Obama emphasized that taxpayers’ money should be protected, that their money should not end up in CEO’s bank accounts and that homeowners need help with the mortgage crisis.
However, McCain spoke about the new signs of unity among the Democratic and Republican parties in solving the economic crisis. “All of us saw this train wreck coming,” McCain said. The Republican nominee explained that everyone is responsible for the financial failures that have occurred, and that he will begin holding Washington and Wall Street accountable for their greed instead of “rewarding them.”
“We need more responsibility, not just when there is a crisis,” Obama rebutted. The Democratic nominee believes the country should stop looking at “what’s good for Wall Street and start looking at what’s good for Main Street” and to react when there are problems for everyday people, not just the rich.
The debate then shifted into how the two candidates differed in their approaches to leadership.
“The Sheriff,” as McCain says many have called him because he fights corporate corruption, explained that he will veto every spending bill that comes across his table and that he will make sure corrupt CEOs from any company be put in federal prison. McCain said a fundamental difference between the candidates is that Obama cannot handle the current financial crisis, while he can.
Obama defended his platform and stated that, unlike McCain, he will cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people. The senator also mentioned that McCain wants to propose $3 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest businesses in the nation and $700 million in tax cuts to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, while leaving out the rest of the American people.
The candidates further debated the hot issues of Iraq, which highlighted the key differences between their viewpoints.
“We will come home with victory and honor in Iraq,” McCain said. He said the war will bring a new “ally in the Middle East” and help Iraq achieve a “flourishing economy.”
However Obama said that America should not have gone to war in the first place. The senator said that he wants to go back to Afghanistan to catch Osama bin Laden. He also accused President Bush and McCain of not looking at the costs that the Iraq War would have on the American people.
“We have spent over $600 billion,” he said. “We have lost over 4,000 lives. We have seen 30,000 wounded.” Obama added that al-Qaeda is stronger than it was in 2001. He also repeatedly questioned why the United States spends more than $10 billion a month on the war when Iraq has a $79 billion surplus.
The debate also touched on foreign affairs with Obama leaning to a more peaceful approach to speaking and making amends with foreign leaders.
In attacking Obama, McCain countered that meeting with enemies does not make situations better, but in actuality reaffirms that they continue to increase their wrongdoing.
McCain also stated that Obama was naive for not being willing to take stronger aggression against Russia for attacking Georgia.
The final questions focused on 9/11 and whether the candidates thought America was safer since the 2001 terrorist attack.
“I think we have safer nation but we are a long way from safe,” McCain said. He reaffirmed that Republicans and Democrats need to work together and do a better job in human intelligence. He added that the United States has to work better with allies as well.
Obama said that there needed to be more focus on the ports and transportation and that the government needs to focus on taking out al-Qaeda to avoid another 9/11. He also said that the United States must regain respect from other nations to become safer. “We have a lot of work to do to restore that America is that shining beacon on the hill.”
In closing, McCain defended veterans. “I know the veterans, and I know them well,” he stated. “I will take care of them. That’s going to be my job. I also have the ability, the knowledge to keep this county safe and secure. I don’t need on-the-job training.”
Obama closed by mentioning his roots in Kenya and his father’s experience in wanting to come to this country, and writing letters to American colleges to obtain an education. “He knew this was the most powerful country in the world,” he said. “I don’t think children and people around the world view us the same.” The senator said the United States needs to send a different message to the world.
The debate almost didn’t take place after McCain announced last Wednesday that he would suspend his campaign and head back to Washington to work on the Wall Street bailout plan. He also pushed to postpone both the presidential and vice presidential debates.
His opponent disagreed with his stance. “This is exactly the time when people need to hear from the candidates,” Obama countered during an impromptu news conference while campaigning in Florida. “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once. In my mind it’s more important than ever.”
However, Obama’s and McCain’s running mates, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will still have their first vice presidential debate on Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis. The moderator will be Gwen Ifill, host and managing editor of “Washington Week” on PBS and a senior correspondent for “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that focuses on educating voters, is the sponsor for both debates and two others in October.