Barack Obama, accused so often of taking too lawyerly an approach to the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics, delivered a brilliant summation at the very outset of his first debate with John McCain.

The question was about the gargantuan bailout being forced upon taxpayers as a way of rescuing the economy from the clutches of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The answer was crisp and complete.

“This is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to (those who have) the most and somehow prosperity will trickle down,” the Democratic presidential candidate said.

Were George W. Bush himself in the defendant’s chair, this would be one of those cases in which the jury would be sent to the deliberation room and the judge would have to quickly return from his chambers to hear the verdict. Does anyone doubt that Bush would be found guilty as charged?

With this latest, grotesque mismanagement of a financial disintegration that showed its first signs years ago, Bush has done for the global economy what he did for New Orleans. He has allowed it — allowed all of us — to drown in a failure that is catastrophic, and he has done so through his usual combination of ineptitude and ideologically inspired indifference to the consequences of refusing to take early action.

Make no mistake. Even as a balky Congress ponders the largest government bailout in American history, even as politicians calculate the winners and losers, even as Obama and McCain are forced to throw away the talking points of their carefully scripted campaigns, this is the beginning of something — not the end.

A recession — and a deep one, many economists now say — is all but certain to grip the U.S. economy and reverberate worldwide. It is to begin (if it hasn’t already) after a period in which household incomes among middle-class Americans never struggled back to the level they’d reached in 2000, before the last recession. With inflation factored in, median household income among working-age families (those headed by someone under 65) fell by $324 between 2000 and 2007, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute.

Managing the restructuring of the financial industry and whatever economic fallout results from it will necessarily preoccupy the next president well into his term. Neither Obama nor McCain would state on Friday night which of their proposed programs would have to be abandoned or delayed because of the one-two punch of bailout funds being disbursed at the same time revenues are falling due to the economic slowdown. An obvious answer is to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire as scheduled beginning in 2010, a year into the next president’s term. But the last gasp of the old guard could still be heard even over the weekend. House Republicans proved their terminal ridiculousness by proposing — get this — to cut taxes on the very businesses whose failures are now to be financed by taxpayers.

The verbal jousting and gotcha moments of previous debates were mostly absent on Friday. But what also was missing is this: an aura that captured the reality that no new president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been asked to take the reins of power with so many crises, on so many fronts, threatening the United States.

The presidential contest, despite periodic ups and downs for one candidate or the other, has been quite close since the two candidates secured their nominations. It has often seemed that voters would like to choose one from column A and one from column B — McCain’s experience and national security credentials and Obama’s freshness and pledge to break with the disastrous policies that have taken us where we are today. In trials, juries often are able to reach a compromise verdict by, say, finding a defendant guilty of a lesser charge. Voters have no such option.

Obama is fundamentally right. We have on Nov. 4 an opportunity to deliver the final verdict on a crowd that has been negligent in too many ways to count. McCain wasn’t the ringleader, but he has been complicit.

Bush and the Republicans are guilty as charged. They deserve to be put away.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.