National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Why Obama Pulled His Punches

Had Sen. Barack Obama really unloaded on Sen. John McCain in the second presidential debate, as he could have, the outcome of the election would be assured.

It has to be assumed that Obama was cautioned against telling the real truth about the economy, because doing so would send it tail-spinning only faster toward, potentially, another Great Depression.

Obama could have recited, chapter and verse, every major vote by McCain to support deregulation and the economic policies that have created the current meltdown. Instead, he limited it to saying McCain voted for four out of five Bush budgets.

Obama could have unraveled, tagged and explained major components of the incredible bundle of special favors and exceptions that fueled the financial feeding frenzy that spun completely out of control in the last four years.

He could have told how five major investment banks in 2004 were permitted to remove the limits on their ability to leverage debt, flooding their portfolios with debt instruments for sale to their customers carrying nominal values up to 40 times the value of the original debt.

That is, they were allowed to sell bundled mortgages and other debts, often packaged in with similarly-leveraged debt instruments, to eager buyers that had an actual value one-fortieth of their nominal value.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis was only the spark that caused all the non-existent wealth tied up in these financial products to start going up into the smoke that they already were in the first place.

So, had Obama laid that scenario out clearly in the debate, and pinned McCain to it the way he could have, he would have demolished McCain, but in the meantime, would have added to the panic that is already starting to undo the global financial system.

With the unfathomable number of $2 trillion in the value of pension and retirement funds already lost in only 15 months, and with even the best-managed 401-K accounts losing on an average of 30% in value so far, citizens as well as all holders of U.S. financier-generated debt could be on the verge of pandemonium.

For anyone who’s been paying attention, all the straight-talking pundits agree that the real problem is simply that no one still knows how bad the problem is.

The reason no one is willing to loan money to banks, for example, is that no one knows how much of the nominal holdings of any given bank is bad non-performing debt, and how much is not. There simply is no way to know, except that every time you turn around, another case of multi-billion dollar insolvency pops up.

One day, Bank of America is being touted as one of the four strongest banks destined to wind up on top of the pile when all the dust clears. The next day, whoops! A huge chunk of their holdings are determined to be insolvent, and they’re in free fall. One day, AIG has been stabilized with a record $86 billion government bailout. The next, they need an emergency $38 billion more.

The honest pundits, those who don’t see it as their job to simply talk up the market to create a false sense of confidence, also acknowledge that we’re charting entirely new territory now, and that there are no proven rules to guide us.

How can there be, when no one knows how bad things really are, much less how bad are they going to get? No one honestly knows if we’re half way through this, a third, two-thirds or barely getting started.

One thing is for sure, based on what has happened so far, the process for an inevitable, long and deep recession, with skyrocketing unemployment and business failures, and plunging revenues for local and state governments and services, is guaranteed.

McCain and the otherwise unfortunate Gov. Sarah Palin can count their lucky stars that Obama is determined to be simply too presidential to really “tell it like it is.”

He’s too dedicated to his calling to shepherd the nation through this unprecedented crisis to really lower the boom on his opponent, because telling the real, unfiltered truth would destabilize the nation, and the global financial system, in non-constructive ways.

On the other hand, people deserve to know the truth in order to better prepare for what’s coming, including for going to the polls on Nov. 4. McCain is as personally responsible, ideologically and in his voting record, for what has brought us to this point as anyone else.