Then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Arizona Senator John McCain squared off for the first time at the Ford Center at the University of Mississippi on this date in 2008, and although the debates between Obama and McCain ahead of the presidential election morphed into a slightly contentious showdown, the debate proved that Obama was able to remain cool under fire and still stick to his salient remarks. Sen. McCain, an experienced elected official, also stood his ground admirably, even when their debates took tense turns.
PBS NewsHour co-owner and former anchor Jim Lehrer moderated the debate, using interesting tactics to get the opposing candidates to speak to each other directly. While there was complete silence in the room as the pair debated, there were several transformative moments that would be the precursors of a historic election.
Key points of the debate were foreign policy and national security, hot items at the time that were overshadowed by other points made by both Obama and McCain. Lehrer sternly asked Sen. Obama about financial recovery and how it linked with the war conflicts in the Middle East at the time.
Sen. Obama responded:
You know, we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is involved in two wars, and we are going through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And although we’ve heard a lot about Wall Street, those of you on Main Street, I think, have been struggling for a while, and you recognize that this could have an impact on all sectors of the economy.
And you’re wondering, how’s it going to affect me? How’s it going to affect my job? How’s it going to affect my house? How’s it going to affect my retirement savings or my ability to send my children to college? So we have to move swiftly, and we have to move wisely. And I’ve put forward a series of proposals that make sure that we protect taxpayers as we engage in this important rescue effort.
As the housing market crash and Wall Street crisis was reaching a fever pitch in our nation, McCain showed grace by saying the issue was a bipartisan concern:
Because as we’re here tonight in this debate, we are seeing, for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats together, sitting down, trying to work out a solution to this fiscal crisis that we’re in.
And have no doubt about the magnitude of this crisis. And we’re not talking about failure of institutions on Wall Street. We’re talking about failures on Main Street, and people who will lose their jobs, and their credits, and their homes, if we don’t fix the greatest fiscal crisis, probably in — certainly in our time, and I’ve been around a little while. But the point is — the point is, we have finally seen Republicans and Democrats sitting down and negotiating together and coming up with a package.
At the time, critics bemoaned the debate, saying it lacked sizzle and that the gentlemen were a bit too polite to each other. McCain touted the usual Republican ideals of smaller government, less spending, and Washington runaway spending, while Obama wisely headed off McCain’s parry by saying he’d change the way government spends, but his voting record was mentioned by his opponent and slightly deflated his argument.
Obama was seen by some pundits to have missed an opportunity to deflect McCain’s attacks and use his effective oratory skills to best his opponent. At the end of the night, though, political bloggers generally agreed that the debate was a tie. Still, McCain shined as the more seasoned professional between the two. In fact, McCain came off seemingly embittered as the debate wore on while Obama’s timbre resonated far longer as he spoke.
Watch the debate here:
Two months later, Obama would vanquish his foe to win the presidency that fall, but this look-back at the debate shows just how far the President has come and how much further he’ll need to go in order to secure a return to the White House.
With the economy failing now as much as it did it 2008, GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are salivating at a chance to keep this election focused on the lack of exponential job growth and overspending in government. The polls may be shifting in favor of Obama in some regard, but this is still a narrow race to come.