Craig Unger and Jennifer Senior on the Debate, and How Little We Really Know About Barack Obama

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Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, Craig Unger, author, most recently, of The Fall of the House of Bush, and New York's Jennifer Senior discuss who won the debate (according to a novel measure), a potential missed opportunity for Obama on the economy, and what kind of president Obama might make — and whether anyone even knows him well enough to say.

C.U.: I assume you watched the debate last night. What was your take?

J.S.: Well, I have a weird rule about this: The candidate who sends out the most press releases in the aftermath is the one who lost. That would be McCain, BTW. I've gotten six so far. Obama's sent none.

C.U.: Gee, I must be on the wrong press list — or maybe the right one. McCain hasn't sent me anything yet. Frankly, I thought the debate was sort of boring and irrelevant. If there is anything striking to me, it is how economic trauma changes the political landscape so much. Issues that might have been important — red state/blue state issues such as abortion, national security, and Bill Ayers — are now completely irrelevant. When McCain tried to deal with stuff like Ayers, it had no impact. I can imagine if the economy had not disintegrated that the Republicans would be doing a lot more of that stuff. Remember in 2004, how the anti-gay-marriage amendment played a key role in winning the election for Bush, especially in states like Ohio.

J.S.: I think both candidates are confused about what to say to the electorate as the economy's in a free fall, but for McCain to talk about Ayers and abortion — as you say, it's irrelevant and seems so obviously a desperate measure. It's like he's going out of his way to prove what he said: He knows nothing about the economy.

C.U.: Frankly, I think he doesn't have a strategy right now. I also think that there really is not a clear-cut path for McCain so long as the economy is center stage — and it almost certainly will be through the election. In fact, it will probably be for several years to come. So Obama seems in a pretty strong position to me. Do you agree? And what kind of president do you think he'll be?

J.S.: I do agree. Before we get to the kind of president he'll be, though, I want to point out: Don't you think it's weird that neither candidate looked at the camera and said, "Don't worry. I have a plan. I'll do X, Y, and Z"? Even if one of them, Obama especially, had said he'd hold a Bill Clinton–style economic summit the second he were elected … I think it would have helped.

C.U.: Maybe. But when it comes to specifics, I think they both desperately want to avoid being pinned down. I think things are still way out of control. So far the crisis has pretty much been seen as somewhat confined to Wall Street, but I suspect we'll see massive layoffs and people defaulting on mortgages, sending property values down, down, down. And whoever wins will have to deal with that.

J.S.: Right, right. I was simply thinking that by declaring you'll hold an economic summit — a wonk's favorite — it looks like you're taking the situation seriously and you aren't afraid of the details.

By the way, I just got another press release from McCain, though this one is about logistics. The others crowed that he won last night's debate, basically. Hillary's campaign used to fill my in-box too, when she was losing.

C.U.: I'm resisting the temptation of looking at my in-box. But when it comes to Obama being president — well, do you want to go there?

J.S.: We can, but I can't possibly guess. Can you? I mean, we know his temperament, which is mild, and I imagine he'll work well with Congress, but we have very little to go on about his decision-making style…

C.U.: I think that — potentially — may be the problem. Once he becomes president, he owns this mess. And he has to get out ahead of it. I think he has be FDR-like, or something like that. If he makes progress and comes up with cohesive programs fast, then he has a decent chance. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he sometimes has an unfortunate tendency to temporize, not to take strong stands, to wait and see how things play out, and I think events are moving so fast that the new president is going to have to get out in front of them. We've just watched Paulson make one mistake after another (is he the president now?). And even though the financial crisis is taking up the entire radar screen, there are other huge issues on the table: energy dependency, the Middle East, etc.

I would add, however, that I think the financial crisis does potentially make him stronger as a president — just as it has made him stronger as a candidate. Before I had thought he might be a creature of the Democratic Congress, but now I think they will have to work together.

J.S.: Yes, and he'll have a biggish majority to work with, I imagine. He'll also have lots of goodwill — an imprimatur to pass tough legislation. But I agree with you. While I don't think he'll be intellectually cowed by the challenge of turning the economy around, I think he's got a professor's tendency to deliberate and mull. His intellectual blankness was an asset before this, I think. He didn't come across as an ideologue. But now he needs some ideas very fast, and he needs to move swiftly, as you say.

C.U.: I've noticed how he can be all things to all people. At times, he would excite the left by being progressive and pro-Palestinian on the Middle East. And then he would talk before AIPAC and give a speech that was much, much further to the right. Most politicians do that to some extent, of course. But his track record is so short that I don't really know where he stands on a lot of key issues.

J.S.: That's the point. Or rather, that's what I meant about his political "blankness." It's an extension of his mild temperament. I don't think he's talking out of both sides of his mouth when he expresses sympathy for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It's that he can fully grasp each side's position.

C.U.: Yes, but what is HIS position?

J.S.: On Israel?

C.U.: I didn't mean that specifically so much about Israel. What I find frustrating about him is that he seems to tailor his speeches to his audience in a way that allows him to play his cards so close to his vest that I'm not sure where he stands on crucial issues.

J.S.: I think his positions are traditionally liberal, in most instances. It's just that he's capable of understanding the other guy's point of view. What this means is that he'll probably embrace a fairly traditional Democratic agenda, if he's president, but perhaps be more open to compromises … or speak about his agenda in ways that aren't quite so ideological.

But you're right. Re: Israel, he did say in 1999, when he was trying to unseat Bobby Rush, that he gave the state his full-throated support. Not that this means much. Every American pol says it. It's this part of Obama that also makes him an easy target for guilt-by-association charges. You can't tell what he stands for, so maybe he DOES believe Jeremiah Wright, etc. etc. etc.

Related: Heilemann: Obama Nails the Debate Trifecta
Those Mysterious Undecided Voters, and Why Obama Should Be Worried About Them
Byron York and Craig Unger on McCain’s Quagmire

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.