- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama is in no hurry to preside over what President Bush himself described on Thursday as “the prospect of a global meltdown.”

Mr. Obama has engaged just enough with the global economic summit to avoid irresponsibility, but he also has avoided taking ownership of a crisis that is not yet fully his problem.

“If you’re Obama, you want your fingerprints nowhere near [the summit]. You’ll take up the process when it’s launched and more stable down the road, but, you know, he said there’s only one president and he’s pretty glad it ain’t him right now,” said Charles Freeman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The economic emergency shows little sign of letting up and carries political weight that could potentially cripple Mr. Obama early in his presidency.

“Right now things are unremittingly bleak,” said Grant Aldonas, a former undersecretary of commerce for international trade. “We’re at a point where there is a severe depression ahead of us.”

Precisely because of the problem’s scale and likely longevity, however, Mr. Obama will have to devote much of his energy to leading the country through the economic storm.

But that will come later, after Jan. 20, when he and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. assume office. Since winning the Nov. 4 election, Mr. Obama has limited himself to supporting domestic measures such as a second stimulus package and aid for automakers.

He has avoided talking about global finance and potential changes, though Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations said he thinks Mr. Obama may be “more inclined to accept deeper regulatory reforms at the national level than the Bush administration would be.”

For now, though, the crisis is still President Bush’s problem, despite the fact that when heads of state from a score of other nations arrived Friday in Washington, none of them met with Mr. Bush. The White House said that was because Mr. Bush could not accommodate all the leaders with private meetings, but Mr. Bush spent the whole day Friday reviewing with advisers the complex economic policies at the heart of the summit debate.

Mr. Obama was invited to participate but declined and designated former Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Republican Rep. Jim Leach to represent him in meetings with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the summit.

“We have one president at a time, and it’s important that the president can speak for the United States at that summit,” said John Podesta, the leader of the Obama transition effort, earlier this week. “It’s not appropriate for … two people to show up at this meeting.”

Ms. Albright and Mr. Leach met with delegations from eight countries on Thursday and Friday, and are scheduled to meet with six more delegations Saturday. They also met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has made the defense of free markets his main goal for the summit, which he and most others say is only the first of several summits on the matter.

Mr. Bush only agreed to the summit when pressured by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“Gordon Brown, it seems to me, and Nicolas Sarkozy both had domestic political motives to look active on the crisis, and they persuaded the Bush administration - which had figured out by now that opposing multilateral initiatives gets you into more trouble than it’s worth - to say yes to the idea,” said Sebastian Mallaby, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Bush on Thursday outlined areas of reform that his administration supports, but made it clear that he does not agree with calls from Europe for a dramatic overhaul of the global economic architecture.

“The United States and our partners are taking the right steps to get through this crisis,” he said.

He also called for reforms to make the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank “more transparent, accountable and effective.” Europe has called for the IMF to receive more contributions and increased power to disburse funds to struggling economies.

Mr. Bush on Thursday fought the idea that America is losing its place atop the global system, a legacy that no president would want.

“I know some may question whether America’s leadership in the global economy will continue,” he said. “The world can be confident that it will, because our markets are flexible and we can rebound from setbacks.”

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