It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world……
That recent advertisement by Sen. Hillary Clinton was designed to reassure the public that Clinton was more seasoned to handle a sudden military threat than younger Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama.
Maybe the ad should really be asking: Which of the three likely presidential candidates — Clinton, Obama or Republican Sen. John McCain — is best prepared to handle that 3 a.m. call for an economic crisis?
Because we seem to be slip-sliding toward one, given the Bear Stearns collapse, Federal Reserve emergency bailout of Wall Street, super-weak U.S. dollar, oil prices stuck over $100, gas prices heading to $4 per gallon, a weakening job market, an astonishing federal deficit, a high-priced Middle East military commitment, escalating home foreclosures, along with rising food prices, energy bills and educational and health expenses.
Let's not forget consumer confidence. It fell to a five-year low in March, prompting Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg to suggest "consumers are on the verge of the worst downturn since the 1970s."
So John, Hillary and Barack …it's 2:59 a.m. and that phone may soon be ringing for you to help us all through a tough economy. Got any inspired ideas?
McCain gets pummeled unfairly for his "I don't know much about economics" remark. More disturbing is McCain's recent inconsistency, first by embracing a hands-off government from business and saying homeowners facing foreclosure have themselves to blame. Later, he tells another audience he'd help troubled homeowners and reduce regulations to kickstart lending again.
He's the least articulate on how to minimize the nation's pain and time spent in an economic downturn.
Clinton would freeze foreclosures for three months and any interest-rate resets on adjustable-rate mortgages, and let the Federal Housing Administration buy the houses of people whose mortgages are bigger than the value of their homes. That's all inviting to those who are struggling, and clearly buys some time, but it sure is thin on more substantive fixes.
Obama may simply have better financial advisers because his recent recommendations — while hardly startling — possess a more practical streak. He recommends beefing up the power of the Federal Reserve, establishing a "financial market oversight commission" to get a better grip on Wall Street risks, committing $40-billion to aid troubled borrowers and ending income taxes for retirees making less than $50,000.
Paul Volcker — the 6-foot-7 former Federal Reserve chairman — is someone I watched first hand in Washington in the late '70s and early 1980s as he wrestled (and beat) the highest U.S. inflation rates in generations. He's backing Obama, not simply for his proposed solutions to our economic woes but because Volcker sees in him the potential to restore at least some sorely needed faith in government, especially among young people.
That's one vote for rising confidence and for things to come well beyond our financial malaise.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com or