Barack Obama was at the White House yesterday, looking presidential.
Maybe you remember "presidential." You know: smart, calm, patriotic.
Obama knew, going in, that it was a Republican setup. And that George W was just trying to help his sidekick, John McCain, to a third Bush term.
But when your country is in a fix and the president asks for your help, if you're a patriot you show up. You make the best of an awkward political situation. You do your homework. You ask relevant questions. You participate.
As opposed to, say, McCain.
Given the Republican nominee's untethered (there's that word again) performance in the last three weeks, during which he has swung wildly from Oblivious to Panicky by way of Blurt and Bluster, McCain's performance comes as no surprise.
But it is still instructive to review McCain's actions in the last two days, to see why the notion of him as president is now alarming even some Republicans.
After making the hasty announcement Wednesday that he was suspending his presidential campaign to rush to Washington and lead the bickering sides to a bipartisan agreement, McCain did no such thing. Instead, he spent Wednesday night and much of Thursday in New York, trying, self-servingly, to get on television.
If the Democrats are competent, David Letterman's taunt—Hey , John, do you need a ride to the airport?—will echo through the next 40 days.
McCain finally arrived in the capital yesterday afternoon. Almost immediately, he discovered that the bailout deal (the one that he hoped to swoop in and seize credit for) was falling apart because of Republican opposition.
Did McCain roll up his sleeves and put his magical maverick bipartisan skills to work? Did he help get the members of his own party on board? Build a bridge or two across the aisle? Stick it to the Wall Street greedheads, as he had promised, by capping the money they can make in this bailout?
No. McCain closeted himself with his advisers and tried to find a way to salvage his rapidly deteriorating political position.
Then it was time for the White House photo op, which McCain had so coveted. And what does Mr. Suspend My Campaign for the Good of the Country do?
He goes AWOL.
"At the bipartisan White House meeting that Mr. McCain had called for a day earlier, he sat silently for more than 40 minutes, more observer than leader, and then offered only a vague sense of where he stood," the New York Times reported.
"Mr. McCain, whose support of the deal is critical if fellow Republicans are to sign on, declined to take a stand," another Times story noted.
"McCain declined to commit," said the Washington Post. "For much of yesterday, McCain shuttled between meetings and his Senate office but rarely came close to the Capitol suites and committee rooms where the talks were taking place."
Ultimately, McCain's pal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, admitted to reporters that McCain "knew little about the plan the nominee had come to Washington to try to shape."
At this point, Obama has two options. Both are pretty good. And not mutually exclusive.
He can leave Washington, blasting Bush and McCain for incompetence and insincerity, and promise the voters to clean house—big time—in January.
Or—and this is a long shot, probably requiring a really scary collapse of the markets that would force Republicans back to the table—Obama might do what McCain did not.
He can show he's worthy of the title "Mr. President."
He can step in, step up, and lead.