They are different in so many ways: one Republican, one Democrat; one in his 70s, one in his 40s; one white, one black. But John McCain and Barack Obama share the genome of the alpha pol. Timing and instinct are among the dominant traits. How else to explain the fact that both men chose precisely the same day nearly the same hour to field press questions for the first time about the collapsing financial sector and the government's proposed $700 billion bailout? Like the cicada crawling up from the earth precisely 17 years after its mom lays her eggs, or the monarch butterfly fluttering a thousand miles to a particular spot, they were driven by something wired, not taught. And even more uncanny: they chose almost exactly the same words.
Here was Obama: "It is wholly unreasonable to expect that American taxpayers would or should hand this Administration or any Administration a $700 billion blank check with absolutely no oversight or conditions when a lack of oversight in Washington and on Wall Street is exactly what got us into this mess."
Here was McCain: "Never before in the history of our nation has so much power and money been concentrated in the hands of one person ... We won't solve a problem caused by poor oversight with a plan that has no oversight."
More McCain: "There must be a path for taxpayers to recover the money that is put into this fund."
More Obama: "If taxpayers are being asked to underwrite hundreds of billions of dollars to solve this crisis, they must be treated like investors. The American people should share in the upside as Wall Street recovers."
McBama: "This plan cannot be a welfare program for Wall Street executives."
O'Cain: "No Wall Street executives should profit from taxpayer dollars. It is wrong to ask teachers and farmers and small-business owners to fill the gas tanks of the helicopters of Wall Street tycoons."
Is this what they mean by putting an end to partisan bickering? Reaching across the aisle to share focus groups? The lifeblood of the world's largest economy was clotting, but the men who would be President answered with shared simplifications: muttered prayers to the god of oversight, an idle hope that taxpayers might awaken one day to a windfall, and the timeless amusement of humble millionaires bashing arrogant millionaires on behalf of folks who may never breathe debt-free.
So the first thing the crisis revealed about the would-be Presidents is that they are Senators not just in name but also by disposition. Americans were angry and confused about the crisis on Wall Street. The moment seemed to cry out for someone to make sense of it all. Instead McCain and Obama explained how they would amend a draft of the bailout legislation. Then they got up the next morning and tried to negotiate a joint statement urging patriotic calm.
And being Senators in today's Washington, both took the stage while shadowed by dubious supporters. Obama has ties to the men who pocketed fortunes while running Fannie Mae off a cliff. McCain's campaign manager was a high-priced adviser to, among others, the equally screwed-up Freddie Mac.
One of these two Senators is about to be thrust into the White House, however, where the gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression will shape his agenda and probably narrow his options for years to come. Beneath the armor of two politicians in crisis mode, there were signs of the kind of President each would be.
Who Speaks for Thrift?
Obama went first, repeating words that have become a sort of mantra for him as he surveys the economy: "It's not the time for fear or panic." Image is a very real part of the presidency, and it seems safe to say now, nearly two years into this campaign, that President Obama would do well should times call for unruffled calm. He wore a gray suit that fit like a mother's caress, nary a wrinkle or bead of sweat visible, and spoke in the same laconic tone you might use to discuss the weather with a co-worker while sorting your e-mail at the same time. He met the press in Clearwater, Fla., the western end of a wide belt of suburbs along Interstate 4 that usually decides who wins the state's 27 electoral votes. A regional poll out that morning showed him surging, and not even a bank panic was going to make him lose his cool.