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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Obama, McCain spar on economy

John McCain got what he wanted last night: a town hall-style debate.

The question is whether it was enough to stem his rival's growing tide, especially considering its primary focus on the struggling economy, one of Sen. McCain's (R-Ariz.) weak points.

McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) squared off on who is best qualified to oversee private industry, whose tax-cut plan is wiser and whether health care should be considered a right or an individual responsibility.

Tom Brokaw moderated the debate, but many of the questions came directly from members of the audience.

Obama once again sought to tie McCain to President George W. Bush's economic policies.

"I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," he said. "And I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain, that essentially said that we should strip away regulations, consumer protections. Let the market run wild and prosperity would rain down on all of us."

In his response, McCain first turned the focus to lowering taxes and energy independence, two themes he would return to later in the night. "I have a plan to fix this problem, and it has got to do with energy independence," he said. "We've got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't … like us very much. We have to keep Americans' taxes low — all Americans' taxes low. Let's not raise taxes on anybody today."

McCain has seen a dip in the polls in recent weeks, most notably in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the anemic stock market plunged yesterday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 508 points. McCain is widely regarded as less appealing on economic issues than Obama. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent of registered voters polled said that Obama better understands economic problems, compared to 33 percent who said McCain.

In the debate at Nashville's Belmont University, the two candidates sought to display sound judgment and a self-assured understanding of the economic crisis. One audience member asked them to explain how Congress' recently passed $700 billion bailout of the financial industry would help everyday Americans.

Saying he preferred to call the plan a "rescue" rather than a bailout, McCain reminded voters that he had temporarily suspended his campaign to go to Washington to negotiate the bill. He then tied Obama to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two struggling companies that stand to gain from the legislation.

"They're the ones that, with the encouragement of Sen. Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back," McCain said. "And you know, there were some of us that stood up two years ago and said we've got to enact legislation to fix this. We've got to stop this greed and excess."

In his response, Obama first tried to outline what the bailout plan would do for the middle class. "Small businesses and some large businesses just can't get loans. If they can't get a loan, that means that they can't make payroll. If they can't make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off."

Obama countered McCain by saying that he had in fact tried early on to fight the Wall Street deregulation that he said allowed companies to dispense irresponsible loans. "I've got to correct a little bit of Sen. McCain's history, not surprisingly," he said. "Sen. McCain, as recently as March, bragged about the fact that he is a deregulator. On the other hand, two years ago, I said that we've got a sub-prime lending crisis that has to be dealt with. I wrote to [Treasury] Secretary [Henry] Paulson, I wrote to Federal Reserve Chairman [Ben] Bernanke, and told them this is something we have to deal with, and nobody did anything about it. A year ago, I went to Wall Street and said we've got to re-regulate, and nothing happened."

Asked whether he considered health care a privilege, a right or a responsibility, McCain, who has proposed giving people tax breaks so they can invest in private health care, called it a responsibility. "We should have available and affordable health care to every American citizen, to every family member," he said. "But government mandates, I'm always a little nervous about."

Obama made a personal appeal in dubbing health care a right. "I think it should be a right for every American," he said. "In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills — for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that."

The debate turned toward issues of foreign policy in its latter half, and the candidates once again sparred over who has demonstrated better judgment. "Sen. Obama was wrong about Iraq and the surge. He was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia. And in his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges," McCain said.

Obama responded with a play on McCain's claim. "There are some things I don't understand," he said. "I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment and it was the wrong judgment."

McCain in May suggested holding 10 town hall meetings rather than typical presidential debates. The Republican candidate is broadly considered to flourish in the less formal style. Obama refused, and the two candidates eventually agreed to three debates. Yesterday's was the second.

Tufts Political Science Professor Kent Portney, interviewed before the debate, said it probably would not have an effect on a general public that seems as if it may have already decided on a candidate. "The vast majority of people have pretty much made up their minds already, and they're not going to change their minds unless something really big happens," he said, adding that recent polls indicate that this election is not as close as recent ones have been.