September 29, 2008
On Bailout, Candidates Were Surely Themselves
By PATRICK HEALY
It was classic John McCain and classic Barack Obama who grappled with the $700 billion bailout plan over the last week: Mr. McCain was by turns action-oriented and impulsive as he dive-bombed targets, while Mr. Obama was measured and cerebral and inclined to work the phones behind the scenes.
Mr. McCain, who came of age in a chain-of-command culture, showed once again that he believes that individual leaders can play a catalytic role and should use the bully pulpit to push politicians. Mr. Obama, who came of age as a community organizer, showed once again that he believes several minds are better than one, and that, for all of his oratorical skill, he is wary of too much showmanship.
For Republicans, Mr. McCain’s performance proved mixed, however. His quick call to fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, then his decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington even though he lacked an alternative to the bailout, risked making him look impetuous in a moment of crisis. He comes out of this without an easily definable role or set of obvious results, though his top advisers said he had bought time for House Republicans to raise their own concerns.
On Capitol Hill, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader, said that Mr. McCain’s support had been critical to bringing the Republicans into the negotiations. Mr. Boehner said that without him, “They would have run over me like a freight train.”
For Democrats, the episode was one more reminder that Mr. Obama was more analyzer-in-chief than firebrand — though in this case, they gave him high marks for his style. Still, given concerns among Americans about the economy, Mr. Obama risked seeming too cool and slow to exert leadership.
Aides and political allies to both men agreed Sunday that perhaps no episode thus far in the campaign better demonstrated how they would approach managing problems as president. Their instincts, temperaments, and leadership traits were in the spotlight in Washington, as well as their limitations and foibles — characteristics that also showed through stylistically in Friday night’s debate.
Both candidates said on Sunday that they were inclined to vote for the bailout even though they were not completely happy with it. McCain advisers also began making the case that Mr. McCain had emerged as an important ally for House Republicans, while Mr. Obama criticized Mr. McCain for initially showing a “Katrina-like response” to the economic crisis when he said that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”
As Mr. McCain appeared as a man in motion last week, Mr. Obama’s cautious side was on clear display. He loathes gambits as too unpredictable, which is why, aides say, he would have never suspended his presidential campaign like Mr. McCain did on Wednesday to join in the bailout negotiations in Washington.
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, thrives in the fray, which accounts for his lead role in the Gang of 14 talks on judicial nominations and in legislative wrangling over campaign finance reform and immigration. Yet Republicans acknowledge that no McCain imprint appears to be on the final bailout package moving through Congress, and some of them were trying Sunday to put the best face on his role by casting him as a man of action.
“By halting his campaign, he magnified just how important this bailout was to the nation, and showed that he would approach a crisis by locking everyone in a room and keeping them there until they had a solution,” said Anthony V. Carbonetti, a Republican political adviser to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.
“And with Obama, you saw a kind of laissez-faire attitude — ‘you guys know it’s important, deal with it,’ ” Mr. Carbonetti added.
Yet many Democrats — even some who have been critical of Mr. Obama in the past — said they were impressed with his performance over the last week, and described Mr. McCain as substituting theatrics for leadership. Mr. Obama consulted with Bush administration officials and Congressional Democrats, emphasized his priorities for the bailout, and told both sides that he was willing to do whatever would be most helpful to reach a bipartisan bailout agreement.
“Obama’s approach to this has been very Obama — measured, cool and thoughtful, which I hope is what the country wants more than theatrical anger,” said Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who had supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy.
“The more yelling and screaming you do, you get accused of grandstanding,” Mr. Rendell said. “Personally, I thought McCain looked bizarre when he came out of the box saying he wanted to fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
Indeed, Mr. McCain’s early call to replace Christopher Cox, the S.E.C. chairman, drew scathing reviews from some conservatives as brash and wrong-headed. He drew fire on Wednesday from one high-profile friend, David Letterman, for canceling a guest spot on Mr. Letterman’s show that night because he had to rush to Washington — even though Mr. McCain stayed in New York until Thursday for other media and public events.
If Mr. McCain’s moves were attention-grabbing, they also invited mockery: On “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, an actor portraying Mr. McCain proposed to Mr. Obama that they both suspend their campaigns and instead hold a series of pie-eating contests instead of debates.
“It’s what, in my campaign, we call a stunt or a gimmick — something to shake up the race,” the McCain character said.
Yet for Mr. McCain, a theatrical move in the short term has often proved to be the preferable strategy, even if the likely results were far from clear.
He surprised many in August by choosing Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate — a move that delighted conservatives at the Republican convention the next week but has raised concerns more recently as Ms. Palin has struggled to explain basic foreign policy views. Earlier that month, too, Mr. McCain sent envoys to Georgia to examine that nation’s conflict with Russia — a grand act that appeared to do nothing to affect the military action except to give Mr. McCain a platform on it.
Mr. McCain’s pronouncements on Georgia that week were in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s choice to monitor the Georgian-Russian hostilities from his Hawaiian vacation spot. Neither Democrats nor Obama aides expressed concern that Mr. Obama appeared remote from the conflict; they simply said there was little concrete he could do to make a difference.
Likewise, in their debate on Friday night, Mr. Obama chose at several points to express agreement with Mr. McCain on national security threats overseas, instead of counterpunching.
Mr. Obama does not tend to take fiery or partisan swipes just for the sake of them. Yet it is unclear if this more serene style will ultimately excite or win over voters in swing states.
Voters list the economy as a priority, and Mr. Obama’s placid public approach may not mesh with the anger that many of them feel. But Democrats say that in the long run, Mr. Obama’s approach will appear as an appealing alternative to President Bush and his choice as a successor, Mr. McCain.
“After eight years of Bush’s cavalier attitude toward serious and complex problems, people are in the market for a more thoughtful approach,” said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic communications consultant who was a spokesman on Senator Clinton’s campaign. “That’s usually dangerous for a politician trying to get elected in a ‘just do it’ culture. But the time seems to be right for Obama’s more cerebral style.”