WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain shifted the campaign focus back to the faltering U.S. economy on Monday, with Obama convening an all-star panel of advisers to help him hatch new approaches to a deepening problem.
Obama met in Washington with a group that included billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who participated by telephone, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
The meeting came as the Bush administration projected the U.S. budget deficit would rise to a new record of $482 billion in fiscal 2009, which starts October 1, 2008, as a continued economic slowdown cuts into government revenues.
The rising deficit is certain to complicate matters for the winner of November’s presidential election, with either Obama or McCain dealing with the fallout of a collapsing housing market, soaring gas and food prices and deeper job uncertainty.
“The challenges we’re facing could not be more critical,” Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, said as the meeting opened.
“The economic emergency is growing more severe, jobs are down, wages are falling, the financial markets threaten to be engaged in a protracted credit crunch with long-lasting ramifications,” he said.
McCain’s campaign countered with a conference call in which top economic adviser Carly Fiorina told reporters the Republican has been “quietly talking” with economists and policymakers, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, over the past year.
“I think the American people are getting treated to yet another photo op by Barack Obama, but meanwhile John McCain has been out talking about the economy, understanding the economy, taking advice on the economy for many, many months,” Fiorina said.
McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who has been a harsh critic of government spending, said in a statement the growing budget deficit was “a striking reminder of the need to reverse the profligate spending that has characterized this administration’s fiscal policy.”
Polls show economic worries lead U.S. voter concerns by a wide margin. After a week out of the country meeting world leaders and discussing foreign policy, Obama said he is anxious to shift gears to high gas prices, home foreclosures and bank failures.
“We have to change course and we have to take some immediate action,” Obama said. “It was not an accident or history or a normal part of the business cycle that led us to this situation. There were some irresponsible decisions that were made on Wall Street and in Washington.”
Among other attendees at the economic session in a Washington hotel on Monday were former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, Paul O’Neill and Lawrence Summers and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
Participants said the free-flowing meeting did not reach conclusions but Obama sought out diverse opinions, but there was a consensus the economy was growing worse.
“This was a very serious conversation about serious issues. We were not discussing political tactics,” Summers told reporters after the two-hour session concluded.
O’Neill, a former Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush and a former CEO of Alcoa, said he had not endorsed either candidate but Obama was “inspiring lots of people to become involved.” Schmidt described him as “impressively knowledgeable.”
McCain has criticized Obama for promising to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for Americans who make more than $250,000 and for opposing McCain’s call to lift the ban on offshore drilling.
Obama has accused McCain of clinging too closely to Bush’s economic approach. Polls show a majority of voters prefer the leadership of Obama and Democrats on the economy.
But McCain, a harsh critic of what he says is runaway government spending, has made inroads among voters with his call for increased offshore drilling and construction of new nuclear power plants.
McCain’s top economic advisers said Obama’s proposals would hurt small businesses and not foster job growth. Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor of economics, said Obama’s approach would backfire.
“Obama’s plan will slow the economy, will depress the economy by raising taxes — raising taxes on business investment, raising taxes on individuals. And that tax increase isn’t going to happen immediately, but the fact that he promises that he will make that happen in 2010 or 2011 is enough to continue to depress the economy now,” he said.
Editing by David Wiessler