Obama's Opportunity

10/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain apparently is desperate to call off his scheduled debate with Barack Obama this Friday. Whatever McCain's motivation -- his eagerness to demonstrate how he is "above party" may be primary -- it nonetheless is surprising since the first debate was to center on foreign policy, McCain's alleged strength. Obama will have none of McCain's line. He believes Americans need to hear from their future president who will have to deal with the current mess. "[I[t's more important than ever that we try to present ourselves to the American people," he added.

If and when they debate this subject, the current economic crisis may afford Obama an opportunity to turn the foreign policy issue to his advantage, thanks to President George W. Bush.

Obama undoubtedly will have countless foreign policy briefings to enable him to demonstrate knowledge about the President of Georgia, McCain's "old friend." But Obama should easily deflect such questions and turn them to his knowledge of the current state of affairs in the United States. He need look no further than George W. Bush for authority and enlightenment.
Bush took notice of our economic and financial woes when he spoke at the UN on September 22, and assured the world that we are in fine shape, strong enough economically to maintain our supposed hegemony in the world. He told the General Assembly that we would maintain our commitment to open economies and promised to stand firm against "economic isolationism." He readily forged the link between what we do here at home to what we do abroad.

The President sounded as if he were addressing Congress, or the nation with a Bush version of a "fireside chat." He told the foreign diplomats that he had acted boldly to prevent "a severe disruption" in the US, one that would have "a devastating effect on other economies around the world." He claimed his administration promoted stability and had prevented the failure of major financial institutions, and then "decisively" attacked the "root cause" of the instability by purchasing "illiquid assets that are weighing down balance sheets and restricting the flow of credit."

Imagine how many drafts it took his speech writers to arrive at that passive, indirect, and ultimately awkward explanation of the banks' egregious mistakes resulting in a mountainous, incredible acquisition of bad debts. We no longer use the word "prudence" in conjunction with bankers.

Bush's remarks are a cue for Obama to speak plainly to the nation of our current predicament. He can and should flail the current crisis for the costly mistakes and for destabilizing the once-proud position of the American dollar. We have fewer dollars at home, and the rest of the world now questions our financial authority. Our credit has been handed over to the Chinese, Arabs, Japanese, and the Euro nations. Even McCain might say, "my friends, this is an issue of our foreign relations."

While he is at it, Obama should speak bluntly about the emptiness of prevailing free market myths. For nearly forty years, our "free marketeers" have promoted the "magic" of the market. "Free" is our favorite operative word. Henry Paulson has said that the purpose of the current bailout - more properly the nationalization of the rotten debts of our banks - is to restore "free markets." This chorus of dubious talk has been the currency of the realm since Richard Nixon "opened the window" in 1971 and cut the dollar loose from a pegged gold value. Jimmy Carter promoted deregulation as part of the national discourse. Ronald Reagan told us that government is the problem, a view shared by the Bushs', and most assuredly reinforced by Bill Clinton. Alas! Some Clinton advisers, easily as culpable as the Bush Administration for ignoring (or promoting?) the excesses and greed of the past, now are in the Obama camp, but whether they will prevail remains to be seen. Time and history will not be Clintonian bedfellows in this matter.

Attacking the failures of the four decades will be readily understood by the nation. Again, what we do at home and what we do abroad are joined at the hip. Foreign and domestic policies are of a piece, and are not neatly divided. Obama has his chance, a chance to relieve us of the sheer, adulterated "free market" nonsense that has badly misled and misgoverned this county. In these times, that would be most welcome and appealing.