Still, many housing activists have been disappointed with the president's response. Obama's programs to let homeowners without equity refinance and to help some avoid foreclosure were lightly used. They represented enough government interference in the marketplace, however, to trigger a February 2009 on-air diatribe from CNBC reporter Rick Santelli that is widely seen as the dawn of the tea party. The president was unable to get Congress to agree to legislation that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to adjust the principle owed on mortgages, known as "cram-down."
Stephen Brown, an economist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Obama may not have acted aggressively enough in 2009, but that the Bush administration also was too timid on housing.
"More decisive action was necessary in 2009, but maybe even in 2008," Brown said. "One could fault the Obama administration, but some of the policies were already under way."
The Romney campaign, naturally, faults Obama. "The Obama record on housing initiatives is abysmal," spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. "It's clear President Obama just hasn't lived up to his own promises, and we can't afford four more years like the last four."
Romney himself remains haunted by a statement he made to the Las Vegas Review-Journal last fall, when he said the best housing policy was to let foreclosures "hit bottom." In campaign appearances, Obama routinely tweaks his Republican opponent over the line, and his surrogates bash the Republican candidate for owning three homes and not sympathizing with regular homeowners.
Analysts think the silence is telling. "They don't have any ideas they could sell in Washington," Brown said.
Gabriel added that the candidates' few statements on the issue show they have similar intentions. The unspoken housing issue for the next four years is how to deal with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which now have an outsized role in underwriting mortgages because of damage from the housing collapse. It's a knotty problem that can't easily be discussed in campaign-sized sound bites.
"It's doubtful the candidates have different positions on this," Gabriel said of housing. "It's just not easy to do big, radical things here."
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