The stakes were higher than ever tonight as Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain went toe-to-toe on the economy and foreign policy at the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. Although the forum was supposed to focus solely on foreign policy and national security matters, recent events made it necessary to include the nation’s troubled economy, as well.
Moderator Jim Lehrer’s opening question intertwined the two. Citing a quote from Dwight Eisenhower, who said, “We must attain both security and solvency. In fact the foundation of military strength is economic strength,” the PBS newsman asked where each stood on the financial recovery package. Neither man actually answered the question, but Obama lobbed the first shot by immediately linking McCain to President George W. Bush.
The financial crisis, he said, “is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain. A theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections, give more and more to the most and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn’t worked.” McCain tried to distance himself from Bush by frequently making reference to his willingness to buck his party, saying more than once that he was never considered “Miss Congeniality” on Capitol Hill.
When the debate turned to Iraq, the candidates returned to familiar ground with Obama speaking of his judgment in getting into the war in the first place and McCain talking about the necessity to leave Iraq in victory. McCain told his rival that the next president will not have to address the issue of whether we should have gone into Iraq to begin with, but how to leave with a win, effectively looking forward rather than back as Obama often does.
Obama retorted by saying that the question for the next president is “Are we making good judgments about how to keep Americans safe, precisely because sending our military into battle is such an enormous step. And the point I originally made is that we took our eye off of Afghanistan and took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11.”
The candidates had a feisty debate over Iran, with McCain accusing Obama of being willing to meet with leaders of Iran without
preconditions, which the Democrat said was a mischaracterization of his position. He added that McCain’s own advisor, Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state, has promoted meeting with Iran unconditionally. McCain shot back several times with the charge that Obama is inexperienced and “doesn’t understand foreign policy concepts and dynamics.”
Each candidate basically held his own throughout the night, and neither had a decisive win, according to analysts. But a CNN/Opinion A Research Corporation poll showed that 51% felt that Obama did the best job; 58% said he would handle the economy better and 52% said he’d handle Iraq better. In a CBS News/Knowledge Network poll of undecided voters, 40% thought Obama won the night, while 38% called it a draw; 68% said Obama would make the right decision on the economy