My bottom line on Friday’s debate: Barack Obama failed to step up to the historic moment. He made perfunctory remarks about the massive banking bailout facing the political system, but he decided not to speak to the American people with anything resembling forceful honesty and clarity. McCain wasn’t any better. Both men faced a gut check in their campaign and both of them flinched.

The explanation, I suspect, is that Barack Obama and John McCain know they are going to wind up voting for this outrageous package, probably sometime next week, so why pretend to be thinking independently? McCain had flirted with the idea that he could speak for the public’s anger and reap big benefits for his troubled candidacy. Someone advised him not to go down that road. He folded.

Obama has offered critical comments on how the bailout should be redesigned for greater equity, but it seems clear he won’t press the point. Left-labor groups are pushing Democrats to address the burdens of indebted Americans and the swooning economy with substantive measures. But party leaders are resisting – reluctant to slow down the bankers’ bonanza with complicating issues.

Obama is standing on the establishment’s side. In governing circles, this is portrayed as the "responsible" position. Responsible to whom?

Obama has real leverage in this political drama, but declines to use it. He’s not president yet, just a young senator from Illinois. Why stick his neck out? If Barack Obama does become president (and I hope so), I predict he will come to regret that he missed this moment to be his own man..