September 25, 2008 – It took President Bush until Wednesday night to address the American people about the nation’s financial crisis, and pretty much all he had to offer was fear itself.
There was no acknowledgement of the shocking failure of government regulation, or that the country cannot afford more tax cuts for the very wealthy and budget-busting wars, or that spending at least $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out Wall Street and the banks should be done carefully, transparently and with oversight by Congress and the courts.
We understand why he may have been reluctant to address the nation, since his contempt for regulation is a significant cause of the current mess. But he could have offered a great deal more than an eerily dispassionate primer on the credit markets in which he took no responsibility at all for the financial debacle.
He promised to protect taxpayers with his proposed bailout, but he did not explain how he would do that other than a superficial assurance that in sweeping up troubled assets, government would buy low and sell high. And he warned that “our entire economy is in danger” unless Congress passes his bailout plan immediately.
In the end, Mr. Bush’s appearance was just another reminder of something that has been worrying us throughout this crisis: the absence of any real national leadership, including on the campaign trail.
Given Mr. Bush’s shockingly weak performance, the only ones who could provide that are the two men battling to succeed him. So far, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is offering that leadership.
What makes it especially frustrating is that this crisis should provide each man a chance to explain his economic policies and offer a concrete solution to the current crisis.
Mr. McCain is doing distinctly worse than Mr. Obama. First, he claimed that the economy was strong, ignoring the deep distress of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already lost their homes. Then he called for a 9/11-style commission to study the causes of the crisis, as if there were a mystery to be solved. Over the last few days he has become a born-again populist, a stance entirely at odds with the career, as he often says, started as “a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.”
After daily pivoting, Mr. McCain now says that the bailout being debated in Congress has to protect taxpayers, that all the money has to be spent in public and that a bipartisan board should “provide oversight.” But he offered not the slightest clue about how he would ensure that taxpayers would ever “recover” the bailout money.
Mr. McCain proposed capping executives’ pay at firms that get bailout money, a nicely punitive idea but one that does nothing to mitigate the crisis. And that is about as far as his new populism went.
What is most important is that Mr. McCain hasn’t said a word about strengthening regulation or budged one inch from his insistence on maintaining Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. That trickle-down notion has done nothing to improve the lives of most Americans and, even without a $700 billion bailout, saddled generations to come with crippling deficits.
Mr. Obama has been clearer on the magnitude and causes of the financial crisis. He has long called for robust regulation of the financial industry, and he said early on that a bailout must protect taxpayers. Mr. Obama also recognizes that the wealthy must pay more taxes or this country will never dig out of its deep financial hole. But as he does too often, Mr. Obama walked up to the edge of offering full prescriptions and stopped there.
We don’t know if Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama will do any good back in Washington. But Mr. McCain’s idea of postponing the Friday night debate was another wild gesture from a candidate entirely too prone to them. The nation needs to hear Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain debate this crisis and demonstrate who is ready to lead.