The Trillion Dollar Question

Who’s in charge here?

Unless a bomb goes off in Bloomingdale’s, there seems very little chance right now that John McCain can win this election. Those rollicking Republican weeks after the St. Paul Convention when Sarah Palin was the Us Weekly pinup girl seem a century ago. A bomb did go off in America, but this time we set it for ourselves. Tick tock tick tock. We all went on spending.

Now among opinion formers there is a new bipartisan fear: that neither of the candidates is up to the colossal, unprecedented challenges of this presidency. The word credit derives from the Latin “credere,” to believe. And right now investors, not just here but all over the world, are fresh out of belief. Not even FDR had to face this multilateral meltdown, and for all his political experience and efforts, the Great Depression howled on to until we got into World War II.

One of the blowbacks of our destructive, fast-churning traffic in ruining reputations is that today very few people in public life can hang on to their stature for long.

“Whoever gets to be president I am worried about, frankly,” Bob Kerrey told me yesterday. “Nothing seems to be working. None of the debates have forced them to tell us what they will do different from Bush. The campaign started when the country was totally different. McCain’s prime message was to get out of the way and let the markets take their course, so he is almost irrelevant. But it also changed for Obama. He was primarily concerned with the inequity of our trade policies, our tax policies, our health care policies. Now fairness has been trumped by something more urgent—the survival of our economic system. I want it to be fair but I mostly just want it to survive. It will be of small consequence if we make it fair but we’re on our last gasping breath.”

Given what has happened in the calamitous presidency of George W. Bush, we can’t comfort ourselves with the notion that a president needs only to surround himself with sage advisers. Remember that photo gallery that ran in The Times after the 2000 election? It was entitled THE CEO CABINET—and to those who had preferred Al Gore the Bush team looked so chasteningly impressive. All those groaning resumes! All those dome heads and booming voices! The former Naval aviator-Congressman-Ambassador-White House Chief of Staff-General Instrument Corporation Chairman and CEO (drum roll) DONALD RUMSFELD as Secretary of Defense! The former White House Chief of Staff-Secretary of Defense-Congressman-Halliburton Chairman and CEO heavyweight political veteran (drum roll!) DICK CHENEY as Vice President! Former Alcoa Chairman and CEO and Rand Corporation Chairman PAUL O’NEILL as Secretary of the Treasury! Medal-festooned 4-star General, Gulf War hero and political savant COLIN POWELL as Secretary of State! Not to mention smart, crisp, capable National Security Advisor CONDOLEEZZA RICE!

So much for that.

Real estate developer and media boss Mort Zuckerman said to me, “It’s not just a question of whom you choose to advise you, but do you know how to ask the right questions? Bush didn’t know. Condi Rice had no more idea what was going on than did the president. It took all the way to General David Petraeus to get a strategy for Iraq that would work. Bob Woodward’s book (The War Within) shows that on the surge Bush was extremely forceful about backing him, but that’s only because he had finally learned something about the subject.”

Yes, everybody worships David Petraeus—me, too—but how long would his luster survive if he went on the campaign trail? Ask Gen. William Westmoreland, Gen. Wesley Clark, and Sen. John McCain. One of the blowbacks of our destructive, fast-churning traffic in ruining reputations is that today very few people in public life can hang on to their stature for long.

Today, only Warren Buffett remains as a monument to flinty American trustworthiness. His Charlie Rose interview after he came to the rescue of Goldman Sachs was briefly seized on as a de facto economic State of the Union, in lieu of a president who cannot give an effective one himself. Maybe because of the way he pronounced “liquidity,” when Bush came out to the Rose Garden this morning to offer calming words to the nation, all I could think of was Will Ferrell.

For the sidelined Hillary Clinton it’s a fierce irony that Obama has swaddled himself in her husband’s former inner circle. John Podesta is heading up the transition team. Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, Jason Furman, and Laura Tyson are just some of the old Clintonites he talks to about the economy. One benefit of the dire financial circumstances is that it may force a rapprochement between her unhappy supporters and the high-riding Obamaites. This is just as well. Bob Kerrey believes that if Obama wins, one of the greatest hazards he’ll face in his first two years is hubris. Bill Clinton overreached at first, Kerrey notes, and members of the House and Senate got clobbered for it in 1994. Kerrey thinks that it’s in these early days in office when Obama will finally reach out to Bill Clinton who knows all about getting off to a disastrous start. Bill, says Kerrey, can help him figure out how to do it right.

That would be funny, wouldn’t it? Bill Clinton reinvented yet again as Obama’s first term guru. Maybe we’re facing such a financial catastrophe we will all have to review the cast of public figures left we can trust.