WASHINGTON — The two major presidential candidates took different approaches Friday to news that the Treasury Department was working on a way to create a facility to buy up illiquid assets.
Sen. John McCain used a campaign stop to outline his own plan to create an entity that would attempt to detect problem companies in the financial sector and restore them to health. But details on his idea remained vague and the Arizona Republican used much of his speech to criticize Sen. Barack Obama and his ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"Sen. Obama did nothing" to curb abuses at the two government-sponsored enterprises "and actually profited from this system of abuse and scandal," Sen. McCain said. "While Fannie and Freddie worked to keep Congress away from their house of cards, Sen. Obama was taking their money. … We've heard a lot of words from Senator Obama over the course of this campaign, but maybe just this once, he could spare us the lectures and admit to his own poor judgment in contributing to these problems."
In contrast, Sen. Obama offered a neutral account of the crisis during a press conference flanked by former regulators, including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now at Citigroup inc., and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. The Illinois Democrat said he had spoken with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and delayed the release of his own financial initiative until he could study details of the administration's plan.
"You don't" propose a solution "in a day," Sen. Obama said. "We've got to do it in an intelligent, systematic, thoughtful fashion. I'm much less interested at this point in scoring political points than I am in making sure that we have a structure in place that is sound and is actually going to work."
The Bush administration is trying to enact legislation before Congress expires next week, but it is clear the new president will ultimately inherit and largely implement the plan in January.
The details of the Treasury's plan "will certainly be significant" to the candidates, "because one of them is going to have to deal with it," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
The conventional wisdom is that the market instability presents a bigger liability to Sen. McCain, whose party has controlled the White House during the financial meltdown. However, if the Bush administration does calm the capital markets, it could give Sen. McCain a boost.
"If they don't straighten it out, and it continues to spiral, then I think that that's going to be great" for Sen. Obama, said Edward J. Kane, a finance professor at Boston College and a senior fellow in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s research center.
Last week both campaigns unveiled plans similar to what the Treasury proposed: creating a government entity to take troubled assets away from banks and other companies and stabilize the mortgage market.
Sen. McCain said Friday that his mortgage financing trust would be different from the Resolution Trust Corp. of the savings and loan crisis, because it would address an institution's problems before it failed.
"This trust will work with the private sector and regulators to identify institutions that are weak and fix them before they become insolvent," he said.
While calling for a new agency, whose jurisdiction and exact duties he did not detail, he said existing ones had to go.
"The lack of transparency in our financial markets went somehow unnoticed by the regulatory agencies scattered throughout Washington charged with protecting the common good," Sen. McCain said. "At best, this confusing assortment of regulators and institutions was egregiously lax in carrying out their responsibilities. At worst, they engaged in the old Washington game of guarding their bureaucratic turf, instead of safeguarding the public interest."
Sen. Obama has backed a proposal supported by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, an adviser, that would create a governmental entity to direct capital and liquidity into the market while modifying troubled loans. He has already called for a more streamlined regulatory system.
On Friday he said the two candidates are in agreement that a new program is needed to deal with troubled assets.
"I am glad to see that Sen. McCain agrees with not just me, and also Secretary Paulson and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke, that at some point we are going to need some sort of institutionalized structure to deal with the underlying problems of bad mortgages," Sen. Obama said.
But Sen. McCain tried to make the issue personal, accusing his rival of taking advice from two former Fannie chief executives, Franklin Raines and Jim Johnson. Mr. Johnson was an adviser to the Obama campaign until June. Mr. Raines has not advised the campaign.
According to Sen. McCain, Fannie and Freddie were largely responsible for the housing crisis.
"They institutionalized a system that rewarded forcing mortgages on people who couldn't afford them, while turning around and selling those bad mortgages to the banks that are now going bankrupt," he said.
He also said that the Bush administration, which repeatedly called for GSE reform since 2003, and Sen. Obama "did nothing" to curb Fannie and Freddie, and that he called for reform in 2005. Neither senator was on the Senate Banking Committee during the GSE debate.