Friday, September 26, 2008

Financial Crisis Offers a Study in Leadership Styles

By Dan Balz
What kind of leadership do Americans want in their president?

Do they prefer the MBA-style of President Bush, who delegated management of the economic crisis to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson until he could not avoid a prime-time address to the nation, and then warned of dire consequences if the government does not act?

Do they prefer the brashness of John McCain, who on Tuesday talked as if he were prepared to scuttle a deal on a rescue package and then on Wednesday abruptly suspended his campaign and elbowed his way into the middle of things in an effort to galvanize negotiators to reach a solution?

Do they prefer the cool and reserved style of Barack Obama, who has monitored the crisis without interrupting his campaign, offered guidelines for what would be an acceptable deal, but who has seemed willing to let the process in Washington play out without direct intervention on his part?

What was clear from the start of the general election was the wide philosophical gulf between Obama and McCain. On virtually every issue, from Iraq to taxes to health care to energy, the differences in their views were stark. Voters could see that the outcome of the election would have a profound impact on the direction the next president would try to take the country.

But over the course of the past week, it's become equally clear that there is a significant difference between McCain and Obama in their leadership styles. Those differences have been on display over the past few days, especially during the chaotic and unexpected developments on Wednesday that produced Thursday's White House meeting, with McCain and Obama in attendance.

McCain, speaking Thursday morning at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York before returning to Washington, called for Democrats and Republicans to set aside politics and solve the crisis now. But both campaigns understand the very obvious political implications of the drama unfolding around the negotiating tables in the capital and along the campaign trail.

Voters are gaining new insights into how these two nominees might act if they were actually in the White House. The presidential debates are intended to provided side-by-side comparisons of the two candidates and presumably they will go forward, if not exactly on schedule. But the financial crisis provides a real-time laboratory for understanding the approaches of the two nominees.

Obama has been more measured and less passionate. McCain, since declaring the fundamentals of the economy strong in his first utterance, has been increasingly outspoken.

Obama has blamed the policies and philosophy of the Republicans for allowing the innate greed of Wall Street to run amok. McCain has blamed greed and corruption itself. McCain has seen the crisis in terms of good and evil -- well, mostly evil. Obama has looked at systemic causes. McCain asked for heads to roll. Obama argued that a change in administrations is the real solution.

Neither can be seen as an obstacle to a solution, but has either truly contributed to a one? Obama advisers argue that their candidate worked cooperatively with Paulson as the administration was preparing its rescue plan and with congressional Democrats in formulating objections to what the initial package included. That, they say, has helped push both sides closer to resolution.

McCain's actions have certainly appeared more impetuous. Was it necessary to declare his campaign in suspension and recommend a postponement of Friday's debate to get the attention of the president and the negotiators? With congressional Republicans moving to oppose the package, his advisers would argue that only a forceful intervention could produce a package acceptable enough to pass.

Obama's moves have drawn less direct criticism, though McCain and the Republicans have argued that he has been unwilling to commit himself at key points over the past 10 days -- a charge Obama's advisers reject.

Ironically, Obama and McCain are now very close together on the terms of a deal. In this case, policy differences appear minimal. Both want independent oversight of how the Treasury secretary would buy up and then resell devalued securities. Both want the taxpayers to share in any profits. Both want Wall Street executives not to profit excessively. Both say the rescue package should be a first step toward revamping the regulation of the financial industry.

But the two are now playing brinksmanship over the crisis, with McCain calling for a delay in Friday's presidential debate until there is agreement on a package and Obama arguing there is no need to stop all campaign activity. Speaking by satellite to the Clinton global forum after McCain, Obama said he would go to Washington Thursday to meet with McCain and others at the White House, but vowed to be in Oxford, Miss., on Friday night for the debate.

McCain has certainly taken the bigger risk, but Obama's course is not risk-free. These events are yet to play out, but the public will have plenty to judge these two nominees on by the time the weekend is over. These are not two politicians who would operate out of the Oval Office in similar ways. Philosophically, stylistically and temperamentally, Americans have a real choice in November.

source: Financial Crisis Offers a Study in Leadership Styles
Washington Post, United States