Campaigns Beef Up Economic Teams in Face of Crisis

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

On Tuesday night, as the federal government was seizing control of insurance giant AIG, Sen. Barack Obama was speeding toward a Hollywood fundraiser. The Democratic presidential nominee had 20 minutes before he arrived, he told his economic policy coordinator, and he wanted to spend it receiving input from his new economic brain trust.

Former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin found an urgent conference call request waiting for him as his plane arrived in New York from Europe at 9:45 that night. Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker was on a Manhattan street, talking on his cellphone and hustling to find a land line. Former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers joined in, as did former Clinton White House economist Laura Tyson. Barbra Streisand would go on as scheduled at the Obama event in Los Angeles, but in Manhattan, other events had seized the attention of the Democrat's campaign.

Two days later, up the coast of California, Stanford University economist John B. Taylor, a senior official in President Bush's first-term Treasury Department whose "Taylor Rule" on monetary policy helps govern worldwide central banking, flew to Green Bay, Wis., where John McCain was campaigning. A peripheral figure in an economic policy shop dominated by business leaders and budget experts, Taylor added needed heft to a McCain campaign rocked by the economic crisis. He has remained close by since.

The upheavals this month have scrambled the campaigns of Obama and McCain, forcing both to bring in reinforcements, recast their economic messages and submit to a crash course on the arcana of corporate finance: credit default swaps, naked short-selling and collateralized debt obligations.

Both men have treaded carefully in discussing the crisis and potential remedies. During a Friday appearance in Florida, Obama said he supported giving the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve the broad authority they need to shore up the system and called for broad bipartisan cooperation on the issue. And despite the massive price tag of the bailout package, he renewed his call for Congress to enact an economic stimulus package that would benefit average Americans rather than Wall Street.

McCain has not specifically endorsed the bailout plan, saying in a statement Saturday that he looked forward "to reviewing the full Administration proposal" and choosing to focus on his proposal for a new entity within the Treasury Department that would identify and rescue ailing financial institutions before they failed. He also called for the ouster of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox and attacked Obama for his ties to Washington insiders such as former Fannie Mae head James A. Johnson, saying the Illinois senator "actually profited from this system of abuse and scandal" that led to the current crises.

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have deep ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giants that were seized by the government this month, and both have senior advisers who were intimately involved with the deregulation of the banking and investment industries in the 1990s.

But Obama appears to have one clear advantage in the conversation: His campaign has been able to bulk up quickly, bringing in an array of major players from the Clinton administration who helped guide the nation through market upheavals, including the crises in Russia, Argentina and Southeast Asia and the collapse of the massive hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. In the past few weeks, an eclectic and largely low-profile team of economic advisers at the Obama campaign headquarters has been practically taken over by the Clinton A-team.

"He's surrounding himself with people who have been through crises and know the lay of the land," said Jared Bernstein, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute who was invited to a meeting of Obama financial advisers in July but was not part of the crisis meeting in Florida on Friday.

McCain has beefed up his eclectic economic team, as well, if somewhat less dramatically. Campaign officials have let it be known that they are taking counsel from Peter J. Wallison, an American Enterprise Institute economist who had been sounding the alarm about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for years. But Wallison said yesterday that he considers himself "a very outside adviser," offering ideas to McCain's domestic policy chief, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, when asked, but never to McCain directly.

Instead, the McCain campaign has focused on its broader economic message, with hard-hitting speeches portraying Obama as weak-kneed in the face of crisis and advertisements tying the Democrat to some of the episode's rogues. The policy shop remains dominated by a diverse set of voices more versed in government finance and business than in the ways of Wall Street.

Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office whose academic background is in public finance, remains McCain's main economic spokesman. Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, and Meg Whitman, who once headed eBay, are the public faces of his economic team. Phil Gramm, a former Senate banking committee chairman who works for the Swiss banking giant UBS, is McCain's main connection to Wall Street. But the campaign has sought to distance the candidate from the Texan since he referred to the United States as "a nation of whiners" in an interview.

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