Washington — In the greatest crisis to confront the American economic system in three-quarters of a century, it is notable that the leaders of the two elected branches of the federal government have not been calling the signals.
George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have not gone AWOL, but they have stepped back to permit deputies with greater expertise and fewer acquired scars to take the lead in figuring out a solution.
Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank have been at the center of the dialogue, and, as this is written, the burden is on their shoulders to rescue Wall Street and all the enterprises and individuals whose fortunes rest on the functioning of that financial center.
Seventy-five years ago, when FDR entered the White House and immediately confronted a banking crisis brought on by the Great Depression, his Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, was on the front lines. But no one doubted that it was Roosevelt who was making the key decisions, and it was the president's own voice that calmed public nerves and bought precious time for the remedies to take effect.
We know why George Bush has not attempted to play that role in this crisis. The last 44 months, since his second term began, have so depleted Bush's personal credibility and political influence that he is crippled as a national leader. His own party, at its nominating convention, could barely bring itself to acknowledge him. Attaching his name to almost any proposition costs it public backing, rather than attracting support.
Paulson and Bernanke are not charismatic figures, but it clearly is better to have their names attached to the rescue plan than Bush's.
But how do you explain the transfer of authority from Pelosi and Reid to the chairmen of two congressional committees that supervise the operations of financial markets - Dodd and Frank?
The reason, I have to believe, is that public disdain for Congress and its top leaders is as great as the disillusionment with the president.
From the high hopes that greeted the Democratic takeover of the Senate and House in November 2006, there has grown, month by month, a sense of disillusionment with the performance of this Congress. Bush has a roughly 30 percent job approval; Congress is at least a dozen points below that.
Last week, just before this financial crisis burst into public view, I sat down with Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who is the able majority leader of the House of Representatives.
He handed me a prepared list of the achievements of this Congress. It was not a shabby compendium. The economic stimulus measure, the minimum wage boost, student loan legislation, the new GI bill, new ethics rules and a dozen or more other laws to "improve the lives of the American people" were highlighted.
When I asked Hoyer how then he explained the terrible reputation of this Congress, he insisted that it did not reflect the reputation of individual members - which may be true but is not really a response.
I think that institutional reputation has been damaged by two things: the sense that Democrats and Republicans would rather score partisan points off each other than look for ways to work together, and the frustration at Congress' inaction on the big issues of greatest concern to voters.
For two years, Congress has done nothing but acquiesce in Bush's decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, despite public weariness with those wars. Basic systems - health care, transportation, immigration, education, energy - have become increasingly expensive even as they have failed to deliver promised results. And Congress has failed to improve them - or even to bring substantive remedies to a vote.
It is because of that persistent failure that Congress cannot afford to delay for long taking up and passing the financial bailout legislation urged by the administration. It can tinker with the details, but inaction is not an option. John McCain and Barack Obama are creatures of Congress. Neither of them can afford to let it flunk this test.