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Paulson's Moment

It's been easy over the last few months to feel a bit sorry for Hank Paulson. He left Goldman Sachs, reluctantly, to lead President Bush's second-term Treasury in the belief that his skills might help solve two thorny problems: deteriorating political sentiment toward China's rising economic might, and the long-term insolvency of the U.S. entitlement programs as the Baby Boom generation heads toward retirement.

Neither appears in the cards. Despite Paulson's solid reputation across party lines and his long experience with China, anti-China sentiment hasn't noticeably eased. In fact, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham say they now have a veto-proof majority for a bill to punish China over its currency value and its effect on our trade balance.

And as President Bush becomes more of a lame duck by the day -- witness Karl Rove's departure this week -- it's a safe bet that absolutely nothing to shore up Social Security and Medicare will be done before he leaves office.

But the current turmoil in financial markets provides Paulson an unexpected opportunity to make his market. If he can help Fed Chairman Bernanke avoid recession -- something economists and Wall Street increasingly fear -- he will have made his tenure well worth it. It's not the mission he originally envisioned for himself, but a supremely consequential one nevertheless.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.