12/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Walking the Tightrope: Obama Ready to Take Action But Not Yet In Charge

All that was missing Monday was a gilded sedan chair for Barack Obama and a rocking chair for George Bush.

The contrast in images amid the greatest economic crisis of our generation was stark. President Obama, ah, President-elect Obama, was surrounded by his quartet of top economic advisers and dozens of media in Chicago, while President Bush was on the steps of the Treasury Building, with Henry Paulson both at his back and inadvertently exuding the air of a sincere gym teacher improbably promoted to principal.

The place to be is Chicago with Obama, with the first hints of winter and snow fittingly in the air amid the national anxiety. For sure, it reflects the wickedly short attention spans of us folks in the media; of our professional ambitions, personal futures, TV appearances and maybe even speaking fees now tied to the new star. By contrast, the C-SPAN airings of White House briefings back in D.C. show us journalists whose melancholy air hints at their having been relegated to maximum security isolation in the dankest of state prisons.

But what's playing out also reflects a sense that a drama to which we're spectators has, without any mention in the Playbill, moved on to the next act without finishing the last one. The intermission on which we'd planned also seems to have vanished.

For sure, there is a lack both of fairness and sense of history at play. A lot of smart folks are working overtime all over Washington dealing with awful financial complexity and a string of unexpected events and unintended consequences. The markets going south and the latest emergency transfusion, this into the veins of Citigroup, bedevil many, not just those laboring at the White House, Treasury, the Securities & Exchange Commission, the FDIC and other outposts now known to far more Americans fretting over their economic present and future.

And there seems little recognition that the final scenes of presidencies do bring significant moments and actions. Can we forget the Bush-like poll numbers of Jimmy Carter in 1980 after being vanquished by Ronald Reagan? But Carter oversaw the passage and signing of significant environmental measures passed and, of course, bargained a deal leading to the end of the Iranian hostage debacle.

There are other examples but, so far, scant sense that President Bush is doing much beyond playing out the string. Perhaps it's the utter lack of a sense of urgency in his every appearance, in his every step. Perhaps it's his moral certitude -- simultaneously his strength and his weakness. He'll get it right because, well, the guy upstairs is on his side.

Improbably, his appearance on the steps of the Treasury again reinforced a sense of a sports coach sitting on a lead. It's as if he's playing defense, not wanting to make any more mistakes in the closing minutes, to hold a lead which, if truth be told, he doesn't even have. Maybe he feels burned and just doesn't want to send more billions into the black hole of an AIG or another imploding financial giant. Maybe he just doesn't want to exit on Jan. 20 looking utterly inept.

Meanwhile, Team Obama is walking its own tightrope. It wants to give every suggestion of being ready to take action but, at the same time, not to look precipitous. After all, they're not actually in charge yet, regardless of those pundits who find this wait frustrating and opine about changing the Constitution.

For sure, when they do, the bloom may come off the rose more quickly than we imagine. These problems may not be given to any obvious remedy, no matter how many sharp alums of Harvard or Goldman Sachs are gathered together in the West Wing

For now, however, the political center of gravity seems to have shifted to the chilly Heartland. And, knock on wood, the guy who might well have been paraded before us in a sedan chair Monday, his acolytes holding him aloft, at least seems to know what he's doing.