In this Economic Crisis, President Bush Finds Himself Short of Political Capital

"He's a lame duck with empty pockets," says one historian.

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But the situation isn't hopeless. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, realized that one of his main jobs during the Depression was to restore Americans' confidence in the future, and that's what the next president may need to do. In such a crisis atmosphere, "behind-the-scenes leadership is not sufficient," Zelizer argues. FDR managed to use his skills as a communicator to convince fellow citizens that despite the enormity of the problem, "eventually he would figure it out," Zelizer says.

FDR also found that flexibility was key. "Roosevelt was experimental," Dallek says. "If something didn't work, he moved on to something else." That may have to be the guiding philosophy of whoever is elected November 4.