Campaign Issues and Candidate Positions

Obama and McCain disagreed on a wide range of issues. The issues that received substantial attention during the campaign included the following:

National security and foreign affairs issues:

The Iraq war headed the list in this area (Gordon 2008). McCain supported the initial decision to attack Iraq. Obama opposed it from the beginning. McCain encouraged the troop surge in 2007. Obama opposed it. Obama proposed a timetable for removing U.S. troops from Iraq, stating that most should be out within sixteen months. McCain opposed any timetable for removal. Obama argued that troops needed to be withdrawn from Iraq because they were needed in Afghanistan, which he claimed was the most important battlefield in the struggle against terrorism. While McCain agreed that Afghanistan was important, he argued that Iraq was equally important.

There were other national security and foreign affairs issues, although they were less significant to most voters than were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons was a salient topic in the campaign. Differences between the candidates were more subtle on this issue than they were on Iraq, as both candidates were opposed to Iran acquiring a nuclear capacity. McCain appeared to take a somewhat harder line toward dealing with Iran, emphasizing using sanctions more vigorously. Another issue involved Russia, which sent troops into the neighboring country (and former USSR republic) of Georgia in August, 2008. While both candidates opposed the Russian invasion, McCain took a harder line toward dealing with Russia. Although Obama condemned the Russian invasion of Georgia, he argued that the U.S. needed to cooperate with Russia in areas of mutual interest, such as nuclear disarmament.


Obama proposed reducing taxes on middle and lower income individuals, while raising them for high income earners. McCain criticized Obama for wanting to raise anyone's taxes. He favored reducing taxes for everyone. A comparison of the two tax plans showed that while McCain favored across the board tax reductions, the largest share of his proposed reductions would go to those with high incomes, while Obama's tax cuts were much more favorable to lower income groups (Greenhouse 2008).

The economy:

The economic recession and the emerging financial crisis made the economy a more central questions than both candidates probably had anticipated would be the case earlier in the year. Differences between them on specific items of economic policy were not always that clear. Both voted for the $700 billion financial rescue bill when it came up for a vote in the Senate. Both agreed that the government takeovers of major financial institutions, most notably AIG, were necessary. They did place the blame for the financial crisis differently. Obama claimed that the problems stemmed from too little government regulation of the financial markets. McCain argued that it was the failure of the quasi-governmental institutions of Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae that contributed greatly to the crisis. Probably more important than their specific proposals were the attempts of each candidate to convince the voters that he was the person whom they could have the most confidence in to deal with the financial crisis and the economic recession.

Energy and the environment:

Obama and McCain differed in their approach to solving the nation's dependence on foreign oil. McCain emphasized developing energy production at home, proposing measures that would encourage more exploration for oil, including on public lands and off the nation's coastline. He also favored substantial expansion of nuclear power production. Obama emphasized development of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and more reliance on energy efficiency. Furthermore, Obama favored imposing a windfall profits tax on petroleum companies, which McCain opposed. In general, Obama favored more federal government regulation and subsidies to promote energy efficiency and to develop new energy sources, whereas McCain favored relying more on market forces to solve the nation's energy needs.

Obama's energy policy proposals complemented his environmental policy positions. He proposed strong government action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, which contributed to global warming. He favored instituting a "cap and trade" system of permits to limit carbon dioxide emissions. He also favored far more stringent government regulations on automobile gasoline consumption. McCain agreed that global warming was a problem and that action was needed to combat that problem. However, McCain favored less extensive policies and programs, which would impose less of a burden on businesses.

Health care:

One of the clearest difference between the candidates was in their approach to health care. Obama argued that major federal legislation was needed to reform the health care system. Specifically, he proposed government action to prevent health insurance companies from denying coverage to people on the basis of their existing health condition. He also proposed taxing employers who did not provide health care insurance to their employees (with exemptions for small employers). He further proposed reducing the number of uninsured individuals by expanding Medicaid and by establishing a government run health insurance program that would allow those who did not have health insurance to purchase it at a reasonable cost.

McCain took a more free market approach to reforming health care (Shear 2008). He proposed taxing the health insurance benefits for those who were covered by their employer, arguing that it was unfair for that group to receive insurance benefits tax free, while others paid taxes on the money that they used to purchase insurance. Instead, all individuals would receive a tax credit that they could use to purchase health care insurance under McCain's plan. He argued that greater competition in the health insurance market would result in lower costs and greater coverage.

Social issues:

Because the economy and national security dominated the campaign, social issues received little attention. Still, the candidates differed on some significant issues. Most clearly, they differed on abortion. Obama supported abortion rights without much qualification. McCain opposed allowing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother's life. He also stated that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

On gay rights, the differences between the candidates were not as great as for abortion. Both opposed the legalization of gay marriage. Obama favored allowing civil unions, but McCain did not. Obama also favored allowing gay couples to adopt children, while McCain opposed this.

Additional information can be obtained from the Democratic and Republican platforms.