One candidate succeeded in the challenge he faced last night. The other candidate fell short. The pundits tell me that John McCain needed a significant momentum changer, with Obama now leading in national polls. The pundits also told me that Barack Obama needed to effectively rebut the increasingly nasty charges from the McCain–Palin team that he is too green, too unproven and altogether too unknown to be trusted with the presidency. Sadly for McCain, last night's debate did nothing to stop the momentum in Obama's direction, and that much is certain. Early reaction shows the Obama's performance may have improved his standing with many independent and undecided voters.
So what happened? We were told going into this debate that the "gloves were coming off," that McCain was ready to take it to Obama. He did try, in a manner. But McCain's punches never landed. His challenges to Obama on the issues—" he is going to raise your taxes" and his health plan is "big government"—sounded like worn-out mantras from the 1980s. Other charges seemed like non-sequiturs to questions on the gravity of the financial crisis. Obama supported an "earmark for an overhead projector" in his home state of Illinois, McCain charged at one point. Banks are collapsing, the stock market is in a nose-dive, people are talking seriously about the possibility of a "depression," and McCain is playing political "gotcha" over the cost of an overhead projector?
But much more than the worn-out slogans and off-the-mark debating points, what most hurt McCain was Obama's sublime composure, clarity and directness throughout the 90-minute town-hall discussion. So many commentators have said that Obama is professorial and aloof that I entered this debate greatly worried he would not do well in this more informal setting. Yet, he was engaging, personable, down home and most importantly, clear. He was clear about the details of his approach and clear about the nature of the problems we faced, whether he was talking about the credit crisis or the damage done to our stature as a world leader during the Bush years. He was specific about how big policy matters touch the lives of ordinary people, and he conveyed a clear sense that he knew how to take the country in a different direction. A far cry from the inspiring but nonspecific performances he turned in during the primary race with Hillary Clinton, Obama has plainly figured out how to connect with average middle class and working Americans and how to speak passionately on his commitment working for them.
In fairness, McCain tried. And there is no doubt he scored some points in this debate. It is perhaps no surprise that he seemed most at ease and effective when talking about our relations with and approach to Russia and the lessons of the Cold War. Not unexpected for someone of his generation. By contrast, Obama strained too hard to sound unique and different when McCain, who was asked about Russia first, had already put forward a reasonably sensible posture. It may have been the only point of the night where McCain clearly bested Obama.
McCain's big surprise, the mortgage rescue proposal, seemed so insubstantial it was almost as if he didn't really believe in it himself. At one level, it was a huge promise. At another, it was superficial enough in its contours to end up coming off as a mere debate tactic rather than a serious proposal. Obama, for his part, at least spelled out why it was so important to intervene in the credit markets and consistently talked of the need for anyone serious about dealing with economic problems and policy challenges to speak to both sides of the budgeting process—revenues and expenditures—in the future.
Yet, beyond these specific points, McCain's beloved town-hall format worked for Obama in another deeper sense. A performance like this, so close to actual personal interaction, even though on a national stage, becomes an occasion to see how a candidate's mind works when he is standing face-to-face with his fellow citizens. It becomes a chance to take the measure of a man. McCain sounded like a man saying: "Trust me." Not a bad message. He has been around a very long time. He is very experienced. And at least prior to becoming the Republican nominee, he had reached "across the aisle" in a bipartisan fashion on a number of issues. I don't doubt that some people were touched by this deep core message of McCain's performance last night.
Obama, on the other hand, sounded like a man saying "I really know what's wrong, and I'm ready to fix it." In an age of deep worry about the future, this is the message most Americans wanted and needed to hear. Candidates, and ultimately presidents, are judged not simply by personal qualities or a list of career accomplishments (just ask George H. W. Bush, or "41"). They are judged by the quality of the leadership they bring to their times and to the challenges the nation faces. Last night, one candidate asked us to weigh his past and credit his resume, and another candidate charted a course for our collective future.
As our standing in the world diminishes, as the stock market sinks, as billions are wasted on a war that should never have happened, and as our anxieties as a nation worsen, "trust me" just won't do it.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.