2008 US Election, Jason Jarvis

Obama wins first presidential debate: Jarvis

Judge: Jason Jarvis
Winner: Obama
Scores: McCain 81 | Obama 82 

The first half of this debate was devoted, understandably to the economy. In this half of the debate Barack Obama is definitively ahead of John McCain. From a substantive standpoint Obama was more clear, specific and concise than McCain. Obama started with a clear statement of 4 principles which he indicated should guide the bailout: helping homeowners, providing oversight, ensuring that “golden parachutes” are not given to CEOs and guaranteeing that the money is eventually returned to taxpayers if it is at all possible. McCain’s comments here, surprisingly, were vague and marked by generalizations as he echoed Obama’s suggestions about oversight and then said that the package should contain “essential elements.”

Obama continued to hammer McCain on economic issues, refuting the assertion that he would raise taxes on all Americans by noting that his plan would not raise taxes on anyone that made under $250,000 per year. Additionally, he continually reinforced the notion that the current economic crisis was a product of failed Republican policies from the past 8 years. McCain attempted to rebuff this claim by discussing his record in opposing a series of Bush policies, yet never denied the basic claim that he has supported Bush’s economic policies. The first half of the debate was a clear victory for Obama.

The second half of the debate turned toward foreign policy and saw the exchanges become more heated and witnessed a substantial change in tone, particularly from McCain. The biggest danger for McCain in this half of the debate was his rhetorical technique of speaking down to Obama. To be fair to Obama, he did display a sophisticated knowledge of many foreign policy issues. Despite this fact, McCain often began his answers to questions by suggesting that Obama doesn’t understand the issue. Undoubtedly, this was a prepared strategy. On the one hand it was consistent with his campaign’s theme of referencing his experience. On the other hand, it bordered on a condescending tone. McCain appeared to take on the role of a professor, trying to lecture Obama as though he was a misguided student who needed to respect his much wiser teacher. While Republicans will cheer this rhetorical choice, it remains to be seen how undecided voters react to this strategy

Undoubtedly, McCain is more confident on foreign policy issues, and while Barack did not back down, McCain did well substantively on the issues he knows best. McCain successfully cited his experience and personal knowledge from having traveled to international hotspots. His review of his record of votes on Lebanon, the crisis in the Balkans and Somalia was compelling and well delivered. McCain appeared in this half of the debate to be strong, knowledgeable and presidential.

Finally, McCain simply appeared to be more comfortable discussing foreign affairs. His non-verbal behavior made him appear to be more decisive and confident. In answering questions he gave sharp specific answers that were animated and concise. Barack frequently started answers by stuttering as he searched for the words that he wanted to use. Non-verbal communication is a key component of speaking and in this half of the debate, Obama’s non-verbal behavior made him look less knowledgeable and less prepared than McCain. The foreign policy half of the debate goes to McCain.
Coming into the final ten minutes of the debate, it appears to me that it was roughly even. Both sides had played to their strengths and successfully reinforced their positions on issues with which they feel the most comfortable. Therefore, the closing statements and final rebuttals gained added significance.

In answer to the question: “What is the likelihood of another 9/11” both candidates were given an opportunity to reflect upon the state of America and where the country is. In this instance, McCain attempted to highlight Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that the surge in Iraq was working, even comparing it to George Bush’s refusal to compromise or admit his mistakes. He also talked about his experience as a war veteran returning to the US after his imprisonment in Vietnam. This appeal is suspect and potentially ironic given that McCain is the GOP candidate. While it is consistent with the attempt of his campaign to paint McCain as a maverick and reformer, it was done clumsily and was not particularly persuasive. The key problem here was that his closing statement lacked a clear vision and didn’t reinforce a strong, consistent message.

In contrast, Obama seized the chance to refocus the debate on the big picture that he has been trying to paint of the failures of the past 8 years. He noted that it has been the focus of McCain and Bush upon Iraq that has destroyed the US economy by costing taxpayers $10 billion per month and allowed Al Qaeda to continue to operate in Afghanistan while potential rivals such as China have spread their influence around the world. In referencing Iraq he indicated that “we must have a broader strategic vision” and noted the loss of US soft power as a beacon of freedom to people around the world, noting that this beacon is what led his father to America in the first place.

In a close debate, which this was, the final rebuttal can be incredibly important. Obama’s delivery helped him regain the ground he gave up in the foreign policy portion of the debate and successfully connected the current economic crisis to the general failure of leadership that he blames upon both McCain and Bush. I give the victory to Barack Obama by a small margin.


One thought on “Obama wins first presidential debate: Jarvis

  1. I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work 🙂

    Posted by Mike Harmon | September 27, 2008, 11:37 pm

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