Finger-pointing and financial planning

Times Staff Writers

John McCain and Barack Obama clashed sharply over the economy Friday as the two campaigns intensified their heated confrontation over who can best address the nation’s volatile financial markets.

McCain provided more detail about his proposal to create a new federal regulator, and assailed Obama for failing to outline his own plan. He also accused the Democratic nominee of associating with those responsible for the crisis.

“People like Sen. Obama have been too busy gaming the system and haven’t ever done a thing to actually challenge the system,” McCain told a business group in Green Bay, pointing out that Obama had taken advice from two former executives of collapsed mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

Obama, who endorsed the rescue package announced Friday by the Bush administration, in turn chided McCain for being hypocritical. Obama supporters pointed out that several McCain advisors have worked on behalf of Fannie, including McCain’s campaign manager, who defended the company against increased regulation as president of the industry group Homeownership Alliance.

“At this point, he seems to be willing to say anything, or do anything, or change any position, or violate any principle to try and win this election,” Obama said while campaigning in Florida.


Both candidates have received support from the beleaguered financial services industry. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, employees of the securities and investment field have contributed about $10 million to Obama and $7 million to McCain.

Obama has received $126,349 from employees and political action committees of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae since 2005, more than any other member of Congress except the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, according to the center. McCain has taken $21,550 from Freddie and Fannie employees.

The barbed rhetoric came as the two campaigns tried to adapt to fast-changing economic circumstances and articulate how they would handle the tumult.

McCain offered slightly more information about his proposal to create a new federal agency to head off future corporate collapses.

Under his plan, distressed companies could seek direct aid from a new division of the Treasury Department. The so-called Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust could issue taxpayer-funded loans or assume responsibility for problematic assets like the mortgage-backed securities now wreaking havoc with the financial system.

The McCain campaign did not indicate how this new agency would determine which companies could receive assistance. But senior campaign aide Matt McDonald said the approach would be broadly similar to the financial rescue outlined Friday morning by the Bush administration.

“This will get the Treasury and other financial regulatory authorities in a proactive position . . . instead of reacting in a crisis mode to one situation after another,” McCain said Friday.

McCain also reiterated his call for the Federal Reserve Bank to stop participating in bailouts, and pledged tough penalties for “predatory lenders who knew you can’t afford an adjustable-rate mortgage, but mislead you into signing one. These actions are criminal and the people who commit them should be behind bars.”

Obama offered fewer specifics Friday. He scratched his plan to outline an emergency recovery proposal, citing the gravity of Wall Street’s tumult.

“It is critical at this point that the markets and the public have confidence that their work will be unimpeded by partisan wrangling, and that leaders in both parties work in concert to solve the problem at hand,” Obama said.

Obama voiced support for giving the Treasury and Federal Reserve broad powers to stabilize financial markets. And he said he fully backed efforts by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke “to work in a bipartisan spirit with Congress” on an emergency plan.

“What we’re looking at right now is to provide the Treasury and the Federal Reserve with as broad authority as necessary to stabilize markets and to maintain credit,” he said at a somber news conference, flanked by top players in former President Bill Clinton’s economic brain trust, including former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin.

Obama also advocated a $50-billion economic stimulus plan that includes spending on road building and other infrastructure projects, along with tax rebates of up to $1,000.

McCain did not comment on the administration’s rescue plan Friday. Campaigning in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the GOP nominee instead devoted large sections of his comments to assailing Obama in increasingly personal terms.

McCain repeatedly questioned Obama’s ethics and accused him of putting his own interest ahead of the nation’s. And he issued dire warnings about the consequences of supporting the Democratic nominee. “A vote for Barack Obama will leave this country at risk during one of the most severe challenges to America’s economy since the Great Depression,” McCain told thousands of supporters at a rally in Blaine, Minn.

Obama, who has also grown increasingly combative, fired back at a rally in a sports arena in Coral Gables, Fla.

“This is a guy who spent nearly three decades in Washington, and after spending the entire campaign saying I haven’t been in Washington long enough, he apparently now is willing to assign me responsibility for all of Washington’s failures,” Obama said.

“I think it’s pretty clear that Sen. McCain’s a little panicked right now.”


Levey reported from Wisconsin and Minnesota and Finnegan from Florida. Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.