Image: Obama, McCain
updated 9/23/2008 12:20:56 PM ET 2008-09-23T16:20:56

We like to think that presidential elections matter.

And they do.

But this year — unlike any campaign I’ve ever covered — the outcome will mean decidedly less.

The cake, as they say, has already been baked.

The next president’s foreign policy and defense script has long since been written. To simplify only slightly, it consists of winding down Iraq, declawing Iran and Hugo Chavez, and keeping Russia calm.

And now, after a scary and tumultuous fortnight of economic woes and corporate bailouts, his domestic narrative has also been outlined. And global credit markets, the Bush administration and Congress are holding the pen.

For the president-elect, this will consist largely of navigating the vast and bewildering new economic world order created by Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke.

Unprecedented presidential inheritance
Of course, new administrations always deal with the consequences of the previous one, but this kind of thing has never happened.

Video: Who is Henry Paulson? Imagine if Herbert Hoover had constructed the New Deal just before turning it over to Franklin Roosevelt. Or if James Buchanan had declared war on the South before Abe Lincoln took the oath.

No wonder Barack Obama has said that, if he wins, he’ll keep Paulson in power at least through the transition. Obama will need the treasury secretary to explain this new system he’s supposed to run.

Indeed, Paulson has been on the phone almost every day with both Obama and John McCain.

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It’s more than a courtesy. In a sense, a new administration already is in office. These days, George W. Bush rarely emerges from the West Wing.

The new economic machine
And what is the new machine that Obama or McCain will inherit?

Think of it as the world’s largest government-run “sovereign wealth fund.”

Economic decision-making in America is now fully in the hands of bureaucrats. And they don’t have the independent power Americans once had.

While no one can go it alone in a globalized world, we have lost the power acquired — and ultimately abused — after World War II to set the terms of trade.

Until recently, we could afford to make fun of Brussels. Now we are Brussels, with its hive of bureaucrats. Ours is located in Washington.

New York — the city of Alexander Hamilton, J.P. Morgan and the Rockefellers — has now ceased to be the capitol of capital.

What it means for the president-elect
Our greed, folly and ineptitude are to blame. So is a willful refusal to acknowledge that there is no free lunch and that what goes up must come down. We have officially ruined what it took us a hundred years to build: the credibility of Wall Street and dollar-centric commerce.

This is the reality that Obama or McCain will have to deal with.

That means higher taxes, lower spending and a scaling back of grand plans. It means a new realism and a long slog into the future.

The main task of the next president is already set. He’s got to make the act of digging out sound exciting. We’ve done it before. All it takes is leadership.

Another Lincoln or FDR will do.

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