Who Can Fix the American Economy?

John McCain and Barack Obama are bracing to inherit an economy in turmoil next January, with an estimated record deficit of $482 billion -- the largest the nation has ever faced.

With Americans telling pollsters the slowing economy is their top concern going into the election, the 2008 presidential candidate who can best persuade voters to have faith in his economic plan may hold the advantage in November.

Both Obama and McCain have stepped up their efforts in recent days to convince Americans that they are both up to the job. However, they have vastly different ideas on what ails the U.S. economy and how to fix it.

Their economic agendas reflect stark differences in their life experiences and their conflicting philosophies about the role of government.

Obama, who was raised for a time by a single mother and whose first job was as an advocate for a public housing project in inner city Chicago, proposes a greater government role in driving an economy that creates good jobs for working families.

"He believes that the test of a successful economy is how that economy works for people and what it does for workers," said Obama's senior economics adviser Jason Furman. "Does it give them job security, does it give them good wages, does it give them good benefits?"

Advisers said Obama's roots as a community organizer in Chicago are reflected in his economic agenda, which proposes to scrap President Bush's tax cut for families making more than $250,000 and give a $1,000 tax break to middle- and low-income working families. Obama also advocates spending $21 billion per year on alternative energy and infrastructure projects, and supporting a second stimulus package worth $50 billion in an attempt to spur job growth.

Backgrounds Reflected in Economic Agendas

McCain, a former fighter pilot and prisoner of war whose father and grandfather were both four-star U.S. Navy admirals, views the economic downturn through the prism of his military background.

"Our surge has succeeded in Iraq militarily, now we need an economic surge ... to keep jobs here at home and create new ones," McCain told voters in southeastern Ohio Wednesday.

Advisers said McCain believes national security is inextricably linked with economic security. They said he believes the key to economic growth is low taxes, incentives to keep companies in the country, free trade and reining in federal spending.

"Sen. McCain's economic plans are rooted in his belief that the role of government … on economic issues is to unleash the ingenuity, creativity and hard work of the American people and make it easier to create jobs," said McCain senior adviser Taylor Griffin.

Despite initially voting against Bush's tax cuts, McCain is now proposing to make them permanent and give additional tax cuts to corporations and eliminate the alternative minimum tax.

"The underlining themes … that are woven throughout his approach is not to punish productive behavior, keep tax rates low, create incentives for companies to stay in this country, lower the corporate tax rate and ... comprehensive spending reform," said McCain economic adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer.

Obama: 'I Don't Come From Money'

Both presidential candidates are attempting to convince voters that they feel their economic pain. But so far voters trust Obama more than McCain -- by 19 percentage points -- to handle the economy, according to a July ABC News/Washington Post poll.

In an effort to connect with struggling families and combat attempts by his opponents to paint him as elite, Obama has sought to remind voters on the campaign trail that he grew up with economic uncertainty.

"Our parents weren't wealthy by any means," Obama told voters at a campaign stop in Denver last May. "My mother raised my sister and me on her own, and she even had to use food stamps at one point."

"I don't come from money, I don't come from a lot of privilege. When I see a single mom somewhere trying to raise their children, I know what that's like. When a family can't afford college, I know what that's like," Obama told a crowd in Las Vegas during the Democratic primaries.

In Obama's first memoir, "Dreams From My Father," he wrote that his private school classmates sometimes commented on the lack of food in the family refrigerator.

The presumptive Democratic nominee was born in Hawaii to Barack Obama Sr., a black foreign student from Kenya and Ann Dunham, a white woman from Kansas. The father left the family when his son was 2 years old, and Obama was raised by his mother until she remarried and moved the family to her new husband's home country of Indonesia, when Obama was 6.

He began living with his mother's parents when he was 10, and they helped to send him to a prestigious private school. After a stint at Occidental College, where Obama dabbled in drugs and alcohol, he graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Obama said he paid for his higher education by taking out student loans that he has said he carried into adulthood.

Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, a civil rights litigator and a constitutional law professor before he won a seat in the Illinois State Senate and later, a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004.

McCain's Military Background Reflected in Energy Focus

McCain's campaign has also tried to refocus on economic issues in recent days, advocating off-shore oil drilling and mocking Obama's suggestion that drivers inflate their tires properly to conserve gas.

The presumptive Republican nominee, whose economic agenda has focused on weaning the nation off foreign oil, toured a nuclear power plant in Michigan Tuesday to highlight his support for the construction of 45 new nuclear power generators by 2030.

He has also proposed giving $300 million to a company that develops an effective hybrid car battery.

Obama has blasted McCain for quipping during the primaries that the economy is not his strong suit -- something advisers characterize as an example of McCain's self-depreciatory style.

McCain's campaign also struggled with message control last month when former Sen. Phil Gramm, R- Texas, speaking as a senior economic adviser for McCain, said in an interview that the nation was suffering from only a "mental recession" and not an actual one. McCain quickly distanced himself from Gramm, who has since stepped down from his advisory role in McCain's campaign.

Growing up, McCain's family lived a military lifestyle, and moved often across the United States and the Pacific.

In McCain's family memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," written with McCain's longtime aide Mark Salter, the Arizona senator describes his childhood, shuttling from Navy base to Navy base under the shadows of his father, a decorated submarine commander, and his grandfather, also a well-respected top Navy official.

McCain attended some 20 schools in his childhood before becoming the third-generation McCain family member to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He graduated in 1958 -- fifth from the bottom of his class. He joined the military as a naval aviator and was shot down over Vietnam and held captive for more than five years, enduring torture and untreated injuries that limit his ability to move his arm to this day.

McCain retired from the Navy as a captain and joined second wife Cindy's family beer distribution business as a public relations representative for Anheuser-Busch.

However, McCain quickly got into politics, winning a House seat in 1982, re-election and later claiming a Senate seat for Arizona.

Obama, McCain 'Significantly More Wealthy'

Today both candidates are wealthy, though McCain vastly surpasses Obama in personal wealth, thanks to his wife, Cindy McCain, the daughter of a multimillionaire Anheuser-Busch distributor.

"They are significantly more wealthy than the average American," said Sheila Krumholtz of the nonpartisan government finance watchdog group the Center for Responsive Politics.

McCain is ranked eighth in terms of net worth out of 100 U.S. senators, and Obama is ranked 67th, according to the Center for Responsive Politics Web site, www.opensecrets.org.

McCain's average net worth is $36.4 million compared with Obama's almost $800,000 average net worth, Krumholtz said.

Obama's recent wealth has come from the sale of his memoirs, including his latest best-selling "The Audacity of Hope."

"Virtually all of [McCain's] wealth comes from Cindy McCain," Krumholtz said. "If we were to take away Cindy McCain's assets, his net worth alone would be less than $100,000."

McCain, Obama Have Economic Advisers

Neither candidate has a background in economics or business, and both rely on the advice of a cadre of economic experts.

Advisers say Obama isn't locked into one ideology on how to fix the economy but instead relies on a network of economic advisers. He met last week with a team of star economic gurus, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, several former Treasury secretaries, CEOs, labor insiders and billionaire Warren Buffett.

"He'll talk to anybody with good ideas," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute who was at the meeting. Bernstein is part of a large cadre of outside economic experts who participate in weekly conference calls with the campaign.

"There isn't one economic guru or doctrine that he's followed for years and years," said Furman, the director of Obama's economic policy. "He's interested in getting a diverse range of advisers and seeing them bounce ideas off of each other, critique each others' ideas, then making a call," Furman said of Obama.

Obama's other full-time economic advisor is Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, whose profile has been lowered after a Canadian diplomat reported he assured them Obama's anti-North American Free Trade Agreement rhetoric was mostly campaign bluster.

Like Obama, McCain advisers say the Arizona senator values imput from a wide variety of people.

"There are people who will weigh different priorities with different levels of urgency," Griffin said of the McCain economic team. But generally McCain gravitates to the idea that "the private sector will utilize resources more efficiently that create jobs and is better for the long term."

Some economists argue that neither candidate is adequately addressing the radical changes needed in the nation's banking system and trade deficit.

"McCain comes out of the moderate conservative wing of the Republican Party. He's not an ideologue, but he's certainly not one to meddle in the marketplace more than is necessary," said Peter Morici, an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland. "Whereas Obama is very much a child of Illinois politics and big city liberalism, and he sees the basic problems of the economy as a justice issue -- redistributing income around."

Morici added, "In some ways they both miss the boat because the economy is bedeviled with endemic structural problems and neither one has really proposed solutions to cope with them."

ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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