It takes a major crisis for a lame-duck president, especially one whose popularity is as low as President Bush‘s, to take center stage during a hard-fought presidential campaign. It takes a major crisis for members of Congress, who as a group may be even less popular than the president, to find themselves still in Washington so close to Election Day, with important work to do before they can go home.

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich

It’s especially significant for Bush, who Democrats have been trying to find an excuse to attack and Republicans have been trying to pretend is already gone — and who will be in a few months. It was not at all clear, even a few weeks ago, that Bush would have a final moment. He does, but making it work for him and his party will be no small feat.

The challenge facing Bush is both daunting and inherently unpopular. Presidents almost always go up in the polls when America is attacked from the outside. Bush was larger than life after 9/11. Even the intensely unpopular, malaise-ridden President Jimmy Carter found political revival — at least for a while — in the Iran hostage crisis. It was enough to give him an excuse to stay in the White House, which was very clearly the key to his defeating Ted Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primary.

Not only is this crisis home-grown, an act of men and not of God or our enemies, but the people looking for help — or a bailout, as it were — are about as unpopular as they come. Main Street decides elections. Main Street moves poll numbers. Bailing out Wall Street is a bad dream in an election year.

Almost every big-shot on television and radio in the last few days has strained to explain why bailing out a bunch of overpaid investment bankers who were trying to make even more money by taking on risky financial instruments has anything to do with me. At least on the face of things, it looks like it’s all about them — them being a group of folks who make more money in a year than most of us will make in a lifetime, who managed to buy off both parties with big contributions so as to get more freedom to engage in risky business and who now are asking for the shirt off our backs because they’ve lost theirs.

Why should I care if they get saved? Do they care if my friends and family are struggling to pay off the risky debts they took on via credit cards and home purchases?

It may be true that bailing out the banks is the only way to protect the economy from a credit freeze, protect homeowners from further declines in housing prices, and assure small businesses the access to loans that they need to survive. But I still want a pound of flesh from these guys.

My favorite proposal, of the ones I’ve heard in recent days, is Sen. John McCain‘s suggestion that the highest-paid people in these rescued entities should earn no more than the president of the United States. Imagine, the CEO of one of the big banks having to make ends meet on the $400,000 we pay the president, and everyone below him getting less still. Up to now, $400,000 is what the junior guys make — the bosses make in the many millions. This is not like rebuilding homes for hurricane survivors.

What’s worse — for Bush and the Republicans, anyway —  is that this crisis calls into question all the fundamental tenets that have defined the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan‘s campaign in 1980: smaller government, less regulation, faith in free markets. Not.

Now we have a Republican president working with a Democratic Congress to increase the size of government by somewhere around a trillion dollars, to intervene in an unprecedented way to rescue the failures of a market that, in retrospect, was way too free for its, or our, own good.

It might be a great moment for the Democrats were it not for the fact that so many of them are as compromised in dealing with the crisis as Republicans are. Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and one of the guys who should be center stage in feeding the Republicans crow, has taken more money from the folks at Fannie and Freddie, as they are now so popularly known, than anyone else in Congress. Sen. Barack Obama raised a ton of dough last year from Wall Street fundraisers, as did McCain, of course.

Jim Johnson, Fannie’s former CEO, is one of Obama’s major fundraisers and advisers, as is Frank Raines, who took over from Johnson. Obama can argue, as the newcomer to Washington and national politics, that he has less to do with the mess than McCain, who has been voting like a Republican on banking legislation for years — and who was, for those of us who can remember that far back, one of the Keating Five during the S&L crisis. But that approach also underscores the argument that Republicans are trying to make that Obama does not have the experience to deal with a crisis this big.

The reality is that in the short run, neither Obama nor McCain is going to deal with it. They’re going to let Bush and his team do that. They’ll critique the plan and miss the vote.

Bush has an opportunity to lead this country, but it’s hardly an easy path for him to navigate. The good news is that he is in the spotlight, a place he might otherwise never have been again; the bad news is the enormity of the challenge, both economic and political, he must deal with from there.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.