November's unemployment numbers have started a fresh round of fretting both over the future of the economy as well as who -- in the immediate sense -- will steer the country through the crisis.
The political fireworks, such as they are this time of year, were set off yesterday when Rep. Barney Frank and others let it be known that they want Barack Obama to play a more assertive role in solving the mess.
"At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, he says we only have one president at a time," Frank told consumer advocates Thursday. "I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have. He's got to remedy that situation."
Certainly, the remark was meant more as a criticism of the current White House occupant's effectiveness than it was of Obama's cautious approach towards inserting himself into the fray. A veteran of presidential transition's past, however, says that while the urge to call on Obama to step in immediately is compelling, it is also mistaken -- not in the sense that having two cooks in the kitchen would hurt the economic recovery process, but because this crisis, constitutionally, politically and morally, rests in the hands of George W. Bush.
"This thing about one president at a time is not just a saying," said Mickey Kantor, former Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton. "[Obama] is not president of the United States. He is not. He can do what I think he has done in looking strong and forcefully making statements from time to time -- trying to move forward and create the sense that we have the ability to address these issues. But he can't usurp or fill a vacuum that is existence because the Bush administration has seemingly turned the lights out already. I'm deeply concerned about that, and I'm not saying this in any partisan. But Obama has to be cautious here."
Frank and other Democrats on the Hill would not dispute the notion that Bush and his crew have largely "checked out." The current head-scratching move -- putting aside the actual policy matters -- was a trip made by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to China this week.
"The Secretary of the Treasury is in China right now," said Sen. Chris Dodd. "It's time to come home. We've got a serious problem on our hands. And I realize that he's got a meeting over there, but we need him here."
And yet, concerns that Obama should play a more assertive role are as much immediate in their focus as they are long-term. Among progressives there is an emerging fear that the agenda of the incoming president will be scrapped before it has even begun. The dread has only worsened alongside the economy's fall 0- whether it be the automotive industry's impending bankruptcy or unemployment numbers going up by nearly two million in 2008 alone.
Two weeks ago, I asked Kantor whether he thought Obama would have to scrap his presidential blueprint in light of these pitfalls. He responded by saying that the economic crisis, while daunting, would not be insurmountable.
On Friday, he dismissed the notion that things had grown worse since our last conversation, saying he always figured it would be this awful. "It bottoms out, I think, by the first quarter of next year," he said.
And while he continued to preach optimistically about the possibilities of an Obama White House, he did note that fiscal prudence and restraint would impact the early years of the president-elect's economic plans.
"[The crisis] will inhibit some things, like how much money he can put immediately in health care, energy, infrastructure. We are going to have a huge budget deficit. The first thing we are going to need is to have a stimulus package... Clearly that is going to happen," Kantor said. "[Obama] can tackle the budget by bits and pieces in several areas. He is going to be inhibited by his own restraint and understanding that you don't want to bust a whole in a budget that you can't recover from."