CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Thursday he would fire Securities and Exchange Chairman Christopher Cox if he were president, accusing the former GOP congressman of betraying the public's trust.
McCain criticized President Bush's choice to lead the federal agency that regulates U.S. stocks and securities as he and Democratic rival Barack Obama tried to win over voters anxious to hear how the next president would prevent the sort of financial tremors that have shaken the financial industry this week.
Economic issues traditionally favor Democrats and were expected to be especially potent for Obama in an election cycle that follows eight years of a Republican White House and a Congress usually dominated by the GOP.
Obama, stopping at a restaurant in Bernalillo, N.M., outside of Albuquerque, deflected a reporter's question about whether Cox should be fired, saying he would be talking about the economy later in the day. Obama campaign adviser Linda Douglass said, "What we ought to do is fire the economic policies of George Bush."
Accompanying McCain in Cedar Rapids was his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who drew some of the event's biggest cheers with her stump remarks even though she fumbled a bit at the start when she referred to "Grand Rapids."
McCain, who all but called for Cox's ouster from the Bush administration, has been constantly labeled a reliable Bush helpmate by his Democratic opponents. Bush appointed Cox to lead the SEC in 2005. He had represented the House for 17 years and served on congressional committees overseeing investor protection and U.S. capital markets.
"The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and, in my view, has betrayed the public's trust," McCain told the crowd at a rally in this battleground state. "If I were president today, I would fire him."
SEC spokesman John Heine said he had no immediate comment. Cox's term ends in June 2009 although he could remain longer until a replacement is named.
Earlier this week, Obama criticized McCain for responding to the financial turmoil on Wall Street by suggesting the creation of a high-level commission to study its causes.
In his speech in Cedar Rapids, McCain proposed creating a trust to work with the private sector and regulators to identify mortgage and financial institutions that are weak and to take measures to strengthen them.
"Today we need a plan that doesn't wait until the system fails," the senator said. "For troubled institutions, this will provide an orderly process through which to identify bad loans and eventually sell them."
Stocks on Wall Street have tumbled this week amid the worst financial meltdown in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Investment banker Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, retail broker Merrill Lynch agreed to be sold for half its recent value and the government agreed to an $85 billion loan to prop up mega-insurer AIG.
McCain, meanwhile, has shifted from saying up front that the country's economic fundamentals were strong. Ever since he endured widespread ridicule for that view, he has said the economy in "crisis" but that the fundamental productivity of the American worker endures.
Most of the remainder of McCain's speech was political in nature, accusing Obama and the Democratic leadership of Congress of exploiting economic problems for political gain.
"My friends, that is the kind of me-first, country-second politics that are broken in Washington," said McCain, who has served in Congress for 26 years. "My opponent sees an economic crisis as a political opportunity instead of a time to lead. Sen. Obama isn't change; he's part of the problem with Washington."
On Tuesday, McCain said flatly that he opposed an AIG bailout. On Wednesday, when it was announced, he said it had been "forced" on the country. On Thursday, McCain accused Obama of failing to take a stand on the bailout although McCain too has not said whether he agreed or disagreed with the government's action.
"When AIG was bailed out, I didn't like it, but I understood it needed to be done to protect hard-working Americans with insurance policies and annuities. Sen. Obama didn't take a position," McCain said. "On the biggest issue of the day, he didn't know what to think."
In fact, Obama's response was similar to McCain's. He told voters at a stop in Elko, Nev., on Wednesday that the government "must not bail out the shareholders or the management of AIG that were making big profits when times were good. They shouldn't be bailed out when times are bad."