WASHINGTON — The good news for Barack Obama is that the calamities in the financial world may have created an insuperable barrier to John McCain's White House ambitions.
The bad news is that Obama stands to inherit the leadership of a country in far worse condition than he could have imagined when he began this campaign almost two years ago.
The short-term drama of the Wall Street implosion has been so compelling that its larger implications have been neglected. When you are worried about how many hundreds of points the Dow has shed and which banks may go belly-up, it is difficult to focus your sights on the Big Picture.
But it is now clear that even if the tourniquets applied by Congress, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve stop the bleeding of our capital and credit systems, this country will be paying the price for its folly for a very long time.
Americans' confidence in their economic institutions has been badly shaken, and the world's confidence in the American economy shattered as well.
For now, Obama can benefit from the plausibility of his contention that this is "the final verdict" on the policies of the Bush administration, supported for the most part by McCain and other Republicans.
But in a few weeks, the winner of the election will take custody of the problem and his name and reputation — not Bush's — will be on the line.
The fallout from this financial collapse will be felt in so many ways one can hardly begin to describe them. Old allies like Britain, France and Germany that have been dragged into this morass by the United States will think twice about following our lead on anything.
Adversaries like Iran and Russia may be tempted to test us, knowing that our resources are depleted and our people distracted. And here at home, political dilemmas will crowd the scene.
If, as seems likely, the economic crisis swells the ranks of Democrats in the House and Senate, the new president will face an early test: Repair the battered financial system or move ahead on the Democrats' domestic agenda.
The numbers in the first budget Obama would have to prepare will look scary indeed. The deficit could approach an unimaginable trillion dollars. His advisers would undoubtedly counsel him that he must, at all costs, signal the world that he will impose the kind of discipline needed to prevent runaway inflation and a run on the dollar.
But the larger the Democratic majorities, the greater the pressure will be to deliver promptly on the promises Obama has made in the campaign.
When pressed in the two debates, he has reiterated the goals of a massive new alternative energy program, expansion of health care benefits, and investment in education at all levels from pre-K through college.
With revenues depleted and the costs of Medicaid and welfare and unemployment benefits boosted by the threatened recession, it will take legerdemain to keep those promises.
And that hardly allows for the costs of an expanding war in Afghanistan and a continuing commitment to Iraq — and God knows what other international crises may develop.
A few forward-looking Democrats have begun to focus on what could be the first test for a President Obama with a Congress controlled by his own party: whether to insist on a pay-go rule for the budget.
That rule, which provided the discipline behind the Clinton administration's balanced budgets, was abandoned by the Republicans — with disastrous fiscal results. It was revived last year when the Democrats took over Congress. But the requirement that any new or increased spending be offset by comparable cuts or new revenues has been a source of frustration for many in the party. And it will pinch much harder if applied next year.
No easy choices will be available to the next president. If Obama wins, he may have the shortest honeymoon in history.
David Broder's e-mail address is [email protected]washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group