Obama's Assurance Policy
John McCain's answer to the first question in Wednesday night's debate was an acknowledgment that "Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry." He said it twice, so there could be no missing the message.
Barack Obama quickly agreed. "Everybody understands at this point that we are experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," he said.
The answers were typical of the personality differences that voters have learned from watching these three debates. McCain dealt with the shattering economic news by focusing on the emotional reactions, while Obama, professorial as usual, wanted to put it into a historical context.
But the larger point for both the candidates and the country is that real-world events are driving politics far more than politicians can affect the course of events.
As each quickly confirmed, neither candidate has much more to offer than modest variations on the actions already undertaken by the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve.
George Bush's job approval ratings have hit new lows, but in this economic meltdown, his is the only game in town.
McCain and Obama -- two of the less influential senators when it comes to issues of banking, budgets and taxes -- can no more seize the moment with decisive action than can the plumber Joe Wurzelbacher, who became a foil in their debate.
When McCain tried three weeks ago to insert himself into the drama by announcing that he was suspending his campaign and flying back to Washington, he ended up simply dramatizing his own irrelevance.
Obama was smarter to play it cool, and the polls show he has benefited. Confidence in his performance has grown, and his margins over McCain have improved nationally and in most of the battleground states.
As the race comes down to the final two weeks, the tactical advantages are almost all on Obama's side. Having broken his word on public financing, he has vastly more money than McCain to flood the airwaves with ads and a deeper field operation of volunteer-staffed local headquarters.
The public distemper with George Bush is so pervasive now that nearly all the candidates running on the Republican ticket -- not just McCain but senators and representatives who thought they were well ahead -- have seen their poll numbers turn sickly.
During the debate, when Obama accused McCain of offering nothing but a continuation of Bush's policies, McCain protested, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."