The First Presidential Debate: Highlights


The first presidential debate was held September 26, 2008 at the University of Mississippi, moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS, with the main focus on foreign policy.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The Stats

In the News…

Candidate Soundbites

  • Full Transcript Download
  • On the Economy

  • OBAMA: 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.
    No. 1, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got oversight over this whole process; $700 billion, potentially, is a lot of money.
    No. 2, we’ve got to make sure that taxpayers, when they are putting their money at risk, have the possibility of getting that money back and gains, if the market — and when the market returns.
    No. 3, we’ve got to make sure that none of that money is going to pad CEO bank accounts or to promote golden parachutes.
    And, No. 4, we’ve got to make sure that we’re helping homeowners, because the root problem here has to do with the foreclosures that are taking place all across the country.
    Now, we also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down.
  • MCCAIN: 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….
  • MCCAIN: As president of the United States, I want to assure you, I’ve got a pen. This one’s kind of old. I’ve got a pen, and I’m going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous. You will know their names.
  • OBAMA: Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up. And he’s also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests, although that wasn’t the case with me…. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important… And over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the — the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to — wants to follow.
  • MCCAIN: Senator Obama suspended those requests for pork-barrel projects after he was running for president of the United States. He didn’t happen to see that light during the first three years as a member of the United States Senate, $932 million in requests.
  • MCCAIN: Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left….
  • MCCAIN: How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs…. I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.
  • OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn’t make sense.
  • MCCAIN: Well, I want to make sure we’re not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama’s health care plan. I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government. Look. We have to obviously cut spending. I have fought to cut spending. Senator Obama has $800 billion in new spending programs. I would suggest he start by canceling some of those new spending program that he has.
  • OBAMA: John, it’s been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending.
  • MCCAIN: It’s well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on – on Guantanamo Bay.
  • On Iraq

  • MCCAIN: The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind. That’s the decision of the next president of the United States. Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, incredibly Sen. Obama didn’t go to Iraq for 900 days and never asked for a meeting with General [David] Petraeus.
  • OBAMA: John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni and you were wrong.
  • MCCAIN: I’m afraid Sen. Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy…. And this strategy, and this general, they are winning. Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq.
  • OBAMA: That’s not true…. I absolutely understand the difference between tactics and strategy. And the strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there.
  • On Iran

  • MCCAIN: My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well. Now we cannot a second Holocaust. Let’s just make that very clear. What I have proposed for a long time, and I’ve had conversation with foreign leaders about forming a league of democracies, let’s be clear and let’s have some straight talk. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council.
  • OBAMA: So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked. Senator McCain is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in this Middle East.
  • On Geoorgia and Russia

  • OBAMA: Well, I think that, given what’s happened over the last several weeks and months, our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated, because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region. Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable. They were unwarranted. And at this point, it is absolutely critical for the next president to make clear that we have to follow through on our six-party — or the six-point cease-fire. They have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.
  • MCCAIN: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama’s reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, “Both sides ought to show restraint.” Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.” And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior…. Now, I think the Russians ought to understand that we will support — we, the United States — will support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the natural process, inclusion into NATO.
  • On Terrorism

  • MCCAIN: But I can tell you that I think America is safer today than it was on 9/11. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go. And I’d like to remind you, also, as a result of those recommendations, we’ve probably had the largest reorganization of government since we established the Defense Department. And I think that those men and women in those agencies are doing a great job. But we still have a long way to go before we can declare America safe, and that means doing a better job along our borders, as well.
  • OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think that we are safer in some ways. Obviously, we’ve poured billions of dollars into airport security. We have done some work in terms of securing potential targets, but we still have a long way to go.
  • MCCAIN: The consequences of defeat, which would result from his plan of withdrawal and according to date certain, regardless of conditions, according to our military leaders, according to every expert, would lead to defeat — possible defeat, loss of all the fragile sacrifice that we’ve made of American blood and treasure, which grieves us all. All of that would be lost if we followed Senator Obama’s plan to have specific dates with withdrawal, regardless of conditions on the ground.
  • OBAMA: Oh, there’s no doubt. Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone. In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaida is resurgent.

Bloopers / Humor

  • Check Point: The First Debate – NYT, The Caucus, 9-26-08
  • LEHRER: Say it directly to him.
    OBAMA: I do not think that they are.
    LEHRER: Say it directly to him.
    OBAMA: Well, the — John, 10 days ago, you said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. And…
    MCCAIN: Are you afraid I couldn’t hear him?

Historians’ Comments

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian on “Obama strategy unexpected”: To save my life, if I had to quote to you a line from the last 90 minutes, I’d have a hard time. And that’s pretty unusual, if you think of presidential debates.
    And, you know, what surprised me was this. I thought that Barack Obama was fully credible, and nuanced, and sophisticated, fully credible as a commander-in-chief tonight.
    But, you know, he was in a position where he could have attacked John McCain on three of the things that are very tough for a presidential candidate, an unpopular president of your own party, an unpopular war, and an economy that is going south very fast and has yet to be fixed.
    Yet despite all of that, for a lot of this debate, John McCain was repeatedly on the offensive and, to some extent, Obama was on the defensive. I was surprised by that.
    In terms of strategy, we’ll see what works. But oftentimes in debates, if a candidate does go on the offensive, it does tend to work. That’s what Kennedy did in 1960. It’s what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. And it is what Bill Clinton did in 1992.
    So I think, you know, you can certainly question the strategy, but those were two potential commanders-in-chief out there tonight. – PBS, Newshour, 9-26-08
  • Alan Brinkley on Last Night’s Debate: I doubt the first debate will make a decisive difference. There were no “There you go again” moments and no terrible blunders. Both candidates stuck to their talking points, and there was nothing very new about the debate other than the opportunity to contrast the two men more vividly than has been possible before. On the substance, I think Obama won, but not by much. He had a crisp and effective answer to the key question about the economy. McCain floundered and ended up talking about earmarks, as if he were running for the Senate. On the war, while I think Obama was correct in what he said, McCain seemed more confident.
    But substance, as we should know by now, has never been the chief determinant of how the public evaluates debate. From John Kennedy to Al Gore, most debates have been more important for style than substance, and for likeability than intelligence. And that is why this debate seems to me to be something close to a wash. McCain on the whole looked confident and avuncular. Obama seemed intelligent and articulate. McCain sometimes appeared too a ggressive and angry, and Obama sometimes was too cool and professorial. Fortunately for McCain, his “suspend the debates” stunt–which could have been portrayed as (and in reality was) an embarrassing failure–seemed to play no role in last night’s debate. But I do think that barring some startling turnaround in the next few weeks, the economy will continue to dominate the campaign–and McCain remains the weaker candidate on that issue. – The New Republic, 9-27-08
  • Richard Norton Smith on “Past debates show pitfalls, opportunities”: “Obama has to put people at ease that if a call came in at 3 o’clock in the morning that he would know what to do, and that’s not a terribly high bar to cross,” said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian at George Mason University. “A draw will not only be perceived as a victory in public terms — for the rest of the campaign it will focus the campaign on domestic issues.” – Politco, 9-26-08
  • Julian Zelizer on “John McCain: I’ll be at the debate — Obama and McCain to face off Friday night in Mississippi”: The first and most important thing that people judge is always how the candidates appear and their physical demeanor rather than what they actually say. – NY Daily News, 9-26-08
  • Chad Israelson on “Obama, McCain Take Center Stage”: “People like a winner and if someone emerges tonight and really does well, it can be the kind of thing where the other person never really catches up,” says RCTC History Professor Chad Israelson. –, MN, 9-26-08
  • David Sansing on “The Choice of Ole Miss to Host Tonight’s Debate Sends a Message to the World: Here We Go Again” “I think what we have here is really a confluence of two lines of history, where you have a new Ole Miss, a postracial Ole Miss, and you have a postracial black candidate running for president,” said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the university. “Nowhere in America could these two forces reinforce each other as they do here at Ole Miss.” – Stop the ACLU, PA
  • Gil Troy: The Debates: Sweat the Small Stuff, It Can Sway the Election: So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website to assess how moderate the various statements are)….
  • Reviewing the presidential debates since 1960 – CNN, 9-25-08

The week that was….

  • September 26, 2008: 7 subpoenaed Palin aides fail to show up for hearing into her possible abuse of power … Georgian president thanks Biden for flying to Tblisi to show support during Russian invasion … Groups want Texas governor to extend voter registration deadline in Ike-hit counties … – AP, 9-27-08
    First presidential debate is on as McCain agrees to participate … Biden meets Georgian president without reporters during opening photo opportunity … David Letterman commiserates with Paris Hilton over McCain ‘disses’ … Palin says she will donate money from those implicated in federal corruption probe – AP, 9-26-08
  • September 25, 2008: Democrats, some Republicans question the impact of McCain’s intervention in bailout talks … Alaska legislators say McCain campaign moving on ‘many fronts’ to stall Palin probe … With agreement between Congress and administration unfinished, debate prospects questionable … – AP, 9-26-08
    McCain optimistic at news of agreement in principle, no change in debate status … Palin defends claim that living so close to Russia makes for foreign policy experience … Biden chokes up at Pa. rally recalling Steelers’ kindness during tough time for his family … Palin kept donations from tainted Alaska politicians, including one she urged to step down – AP, 9-25-08
  • September 24, 2008: Obama, McCain make political moves on crisis even while saying politics should play no part … Palin says US could be facing another Great Depression if Congress doesn’t act … Sarah Palin received blessing in 2005 to keep her free from ‘witchcraft’ – AP, 9-25-08
  • September 23, 2008: Days before debate on foreign affairs, Biden says McCain often wrong about security issues … McCain seeks bailout opinions from Romney, business executives while in New York … Poll finds 18 percent of voters are up for grabs, economy the key to getting their support … Obama making big push to flip reliably Republican Indiana, while McCain camp stays low key … Source says Freddie Mac paid $15,000 a month to lobbying firm of McCain campaign manager – AP, 9-24-08
    Palin meets her first world leaders in a tightly controlled diplomatic debut in New York … Obama says Wall Street bailout must protect Main Street, stands by tax-cut plans … McCain says his support for bailout would be contingent on five principles … Obama begins three days of debate preparations … Poll: Obama’s backing from Clinton supporters stuck at same levels as in June – AP, 9-23-08
  • September 22, 2008: Obama says massive financial bailout probably would delay his spending initiatives … Poll: Obama’s support from former Clinton supporters stuck at same levels as in June … Clinton says Democratic win in 2008 should be obvious, given GOP policies … For Palin, meet-and-greet time with world leaders at UN session in NY – AP, 9-23-08
    Obama pledges deep cuts in spending to fix economy … McCain calls for greater oversight of proposed financial bailout plan … Stars of ‘American Chopper’ surprise McCain with a motorcycle – AP, 9-22-08
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