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What's president's role in tough times?

President Bush waves from the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday.

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KAI RYSSDAL: If you picked up a paper this morning or read the news online, chances are pretty good you saw a picture of the man at the epicenter of all the financial turmoil. The not-so-smiling face of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. As Washington power players go, Paulson enjoys a rare advantage. Lawmakers from both parties generally respect his expertise.

That, though, brings me to the guy you didn't see on the front pages this morning. Both of the men who want President Bush's job have been all over the news telling us what they'd do to fix things. But don't you kind of wonder, just 49 days before the election, what difference a president can really make in economic times like these?

Here's Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson.


JEREMY HOBSON: President Bush has made one public statement in the past 48 hours about the crisis on Wall Street.

PRESIDENT BUSH: In the long run, I am confident that our capital markets are flexible and resilient and can deal with these adjustments.

But in the middle of an economic crisis, says presidential historian Robert Dallek, there's little a president can do. What a president with credibility can do, he says, is lift the country's mood.

ROBERT DALLEK: Franklin Roosevelt gave the first of his fireside chats about the banking crisis.

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan.

DALLEK: He didn't have anything all that substantive to offer as to how to turn the banks around, but overnight people rushed to put money back in the banks as opposed to taking it out.

Dallek points out that President Bush's extremely low approval rating makes it difficult for him to have the same impact.

Doug Elmendorf at the Brookings Institution says it's not what a president does during an economic crisis that matters. It's his economic policies laid out from the start.

DOUG ELMENDORF: We can't expect presidents to be experts at every intricate financial transaction. But we can expect them to understand the financial system and economics well enough to lay out a clear principles that their appointees can follow.

As for the next president, Elemendorf says looking at what candidates McCain and Obama have said in the last year forms a far more accurate picture of their economic philosophies than anything they've said in the last two days.

In New York, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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