After months of trying to accentuate the differences between them, Barack Obama and John McCain have demonstrated they have something in common: Neither appears to have the foggiest idea about what caused the crisis on Wall Street, or how to fix it.
Not that I’m asking for much. Hopefully, most people understand that – despite the tendency of politicians to take credit for good economies and blame their opponents for bad ones – it’s not that simple.
The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Wall Street players, and the nation’s lending institutions have infinitely more power over the direction of the economy than the president, no matter who that president is.
Still, call me old-fashioned. But, in times of crisis, I like to know that the man – or woman – we are putting in the Oval Office is fully engaged and armed with courage, confidence and common sense.
If they don’t know the answers, they had better know where to get them. Think Ronald Reagan versus George H.W. Bush. Or Bill Clinton versus Jimmy Carter. Deliberateness is fine, but not at the expense of decisiveness.
At the outset of the economic meltdown, McCain went through a number of costume changes – going rapidly from laissez-faire conservative to angry populist.
Meanwhile, Obama was busy studying his lines under the tutelage of former Treasury Secretaries Paul O’Neill, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers.
By the time the candidates decided what they wanted to say, they had something else to react to: the administration’s $700 billion bailout proposal.
Both expressed tentative support for the idea as an unpleasant necessity. But they also voiced concerns about the devilish details, including whether the plan would benefit Main Street as well as Wall Street and whether it is wise to hand over sweeping powers to the Treasury secretary to buy up bad mortgages in transactions that, according to the bailout wording, “may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”
But the problem isn’t that Obama and McCain have both flunked the economics test. The problem is that they’re on the brink of flunking leadership.
The candidates need to do three things: explain, assess blame and prescribe. They need to explain to voters what they think went wrong; assess blame for whoever is at fault so that Americans can be assured this won’t happen again; and prescribe a course of action that stops the hemorrhaging.
Maybe the first presidential debate Friday will give them a chance to do that. For now, however, they’re too busy playing politics and trying to fit recent events into the narratives of their respective campaigns: change and reform.
For Obama, the financial crisis is evidence that it’s time for a change and an end to failed Republican policies. For McCain, it signals the need to root out corruption and reform our financial system.
Besides, in a race that most polls indicate is a dead heat, both Obama and McCain are so obsessed with getting the slightest edge that they are desperate to be liked and afraid to be disliked. So they won’t tell Americans anything that might hurt their feelings, offend them, or make them uncomfortable.
Such as: This your fault, my fault and the fault of the federal government. It’s also the fault of homeowners who signed on the dotted line and walked away from their responsibilities.
It’s the fault of unscrupulous lenders who gave loans to people who shouldn’t have gotten them. It’s the fault of those on the left who pushed the seductive idea that everyone should own a home whether or not they could afford it.
And it’s the fault of those on the right who didn’t care that people were losing their homes until the dominoes fell all the way to Wall Street. It’s the fault of the folks on Wall Street for letting greed and the lust for obscene bonuses override sound business principles.
And it’s the fault of the Bush administration for looking the other way because all these transactions were supposedly goosing the economy.
There is plenty of blame to go around. What we could use more of – especially from Barack Obama and John McCain – is a sign that either of them is prepared to take decisive action and give us the cold, hard truth.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org