Election 2008: 5 Key Issues

October 15, 2008

A student reading provides brief samples of the opposing views of Senators McCain and Obama on five major issues--the economy, Iraq, healthcare, schools and energy--and is followed by suggestions for student inquiry and a class exercise.

The student reading below provides brief samples of the opposing views of Senators McCain and Obama on five major issues—the economy, Iraq, healthcare, schools and energy—and is followed by suggestions for student inquiry and a class exercise.

Student Reading



  • "I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home mortgages in America and renegotiate...at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make...those payments and stay in their homes."
  • Supports making the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent.
  • Supports lowering the corporation tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
  • Supports doubling the tax exemption for dependents.
  • Would eliminate the estate tax.


  • Opposes McCain plan on home mortgages because the government would have to pay full face value on them even if homes were worth less than the remaining mortgage balances. "It's a plan that would...underwrite the kind of greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street that got us into this mess."
  • Would enact a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures at some banks.
  • Proposes a two-year tax break for businesses that create new jobs.
  • Would let the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250,000 a year.
  • Would raise taxes on dividends and capital gains.
  • Would provide tax and college credits to working and middle class families.

Note: Most of the candidates' economic and health care proposals would have to be approved by Congress.



  • Would keep troop levels recommended by U.S. commanders.
  • "When Iraqi forces can safeguard their own country, American troops can return home."


  • Would remove most American combat troops by 2010.
  • Would keep a backup force in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, fight al-Qaeda and train Iraqi forces.
  • Has argued for greater focus and resources for the war with the Taliban in Afghanistan.



  • Would end tax breaks for employer-provided insurance, encouraging people to move to buying their own insurance rather than getting it from employers.
  • Would provide a tax credit of $5,000 for families ($2,500 for individuals) without health insurance to purchase it.
  • Supports coverage that people do not lose when they change jobs.
  • Would allow insurance purchase across state lines to promote competition among insurance companies.


  • Would expand programs like Medicaid that provide health insurance for low-income people.
  • Would provide some support to help people who are uninsured buy private insurance or get insurance through a new public insurance program.
  • Would impose a tax on companies that do not provide health insurance.
  • Supports coverage that people do not lose when they change jobs.
  • Would require coverage for children.



  • Supports No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with full funding but would reform it by focusing on individual student performance rather than on group averages.
  • Supports merit pay for teachers.
  • Supports use of public money for private school vouchers for low-income families.


  • Supports NCLB but would reform it by moving away from its heavy emphasis on testing and penalties on underperforming schools.
  • Supports merit pay for the best teachers who mentor new teachers and work in schools with special needs as long as the merit pay policy is developed with teacher participation, rather than imposed.
  • Opposes use of public money for private school vouchers.



  • Would expand oil and natural gas production with offshore drilling.
  • Would establish a system of tax credits to encourage development of renewable energies such as wind and solar.
  • Would construct 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030. Says that "nuclear power is a proven, zero-emission source of energy, and it is time we recommit" to expanding its use and favors Yucca Mountain, Nevada as nuclear waste storage site.


  • Would allow expansion of offshore oil drilling if it was part of a broader package of energy measures, including alternative energy funding.
  • Would invest $150 billion over 10 years on alternative energies and require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be in the fuel supply by 2022.
  • Thinks "nuclear power should be in the mix when it comes to energy" but also says "I don't think it's "our optimal energy source, because we haven't figured out how to store the waste safely or recycle the waste."

Questions & investigations

What questions do students have about each issue? List student questions on the chalkboard without comment and subject them to close analysis. Then organize the class for individual and/or small group inquiries and reports on what they have found. See "Thinking Is Questioning"  for detailed suggestions on this approach.

In addition to or instead of student questions, the class might be assigned to investigate the following questions, using sources such as the McCain and Obama websites, recent debate transcripts, and candidate speeches.

1. What are major details of the Bush tax cuts? Why does McCain support and Obama oppose making the Bush tax cuts permanent?

2. Why does Obama support the removal of combat forces from Iraq by 2010, while McCain opposes any removal until Iraqi forces can "safeguard their own country"?

3. Which healthcare proposal would likely provide coverage for more Americans and why? What is the evidence that either plan would control the spiraling cost of healthcare?

4. What case can be made for NCLB's emphasis on testing students and penalizing schools for underperforming schools? What case can be made against it?

5. What case can be made for emphasizing nuclear power as a major element in America's energy program? What case can be made against it?


A Moving Poll

Once students have a satisfactory understanding of candidate positions on each issue, have them participate in a Moving Opinion Poll.

This exercise activates students and helps them see that people can disagree without arguing or fighting, that they can listen respectfully to views different from their own—and perhaps that they can even change their minds.

Post two large signs on opposite sides of the room: "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Tell students they will be participating in a moving opinion poll. Each time students hear a statement, they will move to the place along the imaginary line that most closely reflects their opinion. For strong disagreement, move all the way to one side of the room. For strong agreement, move to the opposite side. Or move to anywhere in between.

Begin with non-controversial opinions as an introduction—e.g.: The best band in history was the Beatles. The best dessert is apple pie. Then introduce statements on the issue, question, or problem to be explored. For example: The Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. American troops should leave Iraq by 2010.

After each statement, invite a few students to explain briefly why they are standing where they are. But this is not a time for conversation or debate. Rather, it is a way to find out what people are thinking and how differently they may view a matter. The teacher might want to change statements slightly by qualifying them or putting them in different contexts to see if opinions change. For example: American troops should leave Iraq by 2010 only if Iraqi troops can defend their country.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org