$700,000,000,000 for what?

CHICAGO — First, it was the shock. Then it began to sink in. Then came the anger.

In a little over a week the American people first heard of, then digested and are now grappling with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and with the Bush administration’s demand that they hand over $700 billion of their hard-earned tax dollars to bail out Wall Street.

If comments of people on the street here are any indication, there is deep resentment about having to trade, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, “cash for trash.”

Carolyn Preiss, a single mother of two, works as a teller at Citibank here — until October 15, that is, when she will lose her job. “How does this help me feed my kids?” she asked Sept. 20. “My job is gone, I’m laid off as of mid-October.” Preiss, who makes $12 an hour, said she hasn’t gotten a raise in a year. “They’ll tax my unemployment so that when I’m out on the street, even then, I’ll be shelling out money to some greedy bastard on Wall Street,” she complained.

Michael George and his brother Pete, both retired bus drivers, purchased a home together for themselves and their wives two years ago on East 74th Street. “The mortgage rate doubled this year to $2,400 per month and now we will lose this place,” George said as he swept the tree-shaded sidewalk in front of his house. “I haven’t figured out what we will do. I just don’t understand, though, what would be wrong with the bank giving us a better mortgage rate. I pay tax on my pension and they’ll take that money and give it to the idiots who made this mess. If I’m saving their asses why can’t I get a break on my mortgage?”

Carol Mueller, a waitress at a Potbelly restaurant downtown, was in the waiting room at Knapp Medical Center on Halsted Street, Sept. 20. She has a bleeding stomach ulcer that, she said, might soon require surgery. “I don’t know what to do, because I don’t have health insurance,” she said. “As it is I have to ask the doctor to prescribe the cheapest generic available. There is a drug that would work better but I can’t afford it.” Mueller said that she hopes Barack Obama is elected because “then we might get health care, but now with all this they’ll probable tell us there is no money left for health care — it’s all going to Wall Street.”

“The American people are faced with the choice of committing more than a trillion dollars of public money to rescue the financial system, or facing a complete collapse of the credit markets, and all the economic activity that lives on credit,” John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said last week. “How will this be implemented? Will we finally help the millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance and their pensions? Or will this be another bailout without conditions, leaving Main Street in crisis and guaranteeing that Wall Street’s crisis will continue in another form?”

Permanent solutions can only be found, Sweeney said, “in the economic program of Barack Obama — re-regulation of the financial markets, a government focused on creating good jobs by investing in infrastructure and solutions to the energy crisis, health care for all Americans, a government that will protect and improve Americans’ retirement security and a guarantee that American workers can bargain for their fair share of the wealth they create.”

Only days after the crisis exploded on Wall Street its potential as the ultimate “game changer” in the elections was displayed in polls that showed Barack Obama widening his lead over McCain and majorities blaming the Republicans and de-regulation of high finance for the crisis.

Obama told a crowd of 20,000 in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 21, referring to McCain and the Republican Party: “They said they wanted to let the market run free but instead they let it run wild. And now we are facing a financial crisis as profound as any we have faced since the Great Depression.” Obama, backing many in Congress, called for another $50 billion stimulus for taxpayers and for an overhaul of the financial regulatory system. He called also for an end to tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, an end to the war in Iraq and creation of millions of “green” jobs with massive investment of funds for that purpose.

In Green Bay, Wis., the following day, Obama declared, “We cannot give a blank check to Washington with no oversight and accountability when no oversight and accountability is what got us into this mess in the first place. This plan can’t just be a plan for Wall Street, it has to be a plan for Main Street. We have to pass a stimulus plan that will put money in the pockets of working families, save jobs and prevent painful budget cuts and tax hikes in our states.”

jwojcik @pww.org