Frank Rich Is Back! And I Bet Obama Wishes He Never Existed
Rich is now in New York and even if the Times can ignore the treasure they lost, Obama isn't likely to. Obama's Original Sin isn't part of the program to make progressives resigned to choosing the lesser of two evils. As Frank's editor points out, "the president’s failure to demand a reckoning from the moneyed interests who brought the economy down has cursed his first term, and could prevent a second." And as Frank reminds us, "Obama arrives at his reelection campaign not merely with a weak performance on Wall Street crime enforcement and reform but also with a scattershot record (at best) of focusing on the main concern of Main Street: joblessness. One is a consequence of the other. His failure to push back against the financial sector, sparing it any responsibility for the economy it tanked, empowered it to roll over his agenda with its own. He has come across as favoring the financial elite over the stranded middle class even if, in his heart of hearts, he does not."
What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe. Time may heal most wounds, but not these. Chronic unemployment remains a constant, painful reminder of the havoc inflicted on the bust’s innocent victims.
...After the 1929 crash, and thanks in part to the legendary Ferdinand Pecora’s fierce thirties Senate hearings, America gained a Securities and Exchange Commission, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and the Glass-Steagall Act to forestall a rerun. After the savings-and-loan debacle of the eighties, some 800 miscreants went to jail. But those who ran the central financial institutions of our fiasco escaped culpability (as did most of the institutions). As the indefatigable Matt Taibbi has tabulated, law enforcement on Obama’s watch rounded up 393,000 illegal immigrants last year and zero bankers. The Justice Department’s ballyhooed Operation Broken Trust has broken still more trust by chasing mainly low-echelon, one-off Madoff wannabes. You almost have to feel sorry for the era’s designated Goldman scapegoat, 32-year-old flunky “Fabulous Fab” Fabrice Tourre, who may yet take the fall for everyone else. It’s as if the Watergate investigation were halted after the cops nabbed the nudniks who did the break-in.
Even now, on the heels of Bank of America’s reluctant $8.5 billion settlement with investors who held its mortgage-backed securities, the Obama administration may be handing it and its peers new get-out-of-jail-free cards. With the Department of Justice’s blessing, the Iowa attorney general, Tom Miller, is pushing the 49 other states to sign on to a national financial settlement ending their investigations of the biggest mortgage lenders. What some call a settlement others may find a cover-up. Time reported in April that the lawyer negotiating with Miller for Moynihan’s Bank of America just happened to be a contributor to his 2010 Iowa reelection campaign. If the deal is struck, any truly aggressive state attorneys general, like Eric Schneiderman of New York, will be shut down before they can dig into the full and still mostly uninvestigated daisy chain of get-rich-quick rackets practiced by banks as they repackaged junk mortgages into junk securities.
Those in executive suites at the top of that chain have long since fled the scene with the proceeds, while bleeding shareholders, investors, homeowners, and cashiered employees were left with the bills. The weak Dodd-Frank financial-reform law that rose from the ruins remains largely inoperative, since the actual rule-writing was delegated to understaffed agencies now under siege by banking lobbyists and their well-greased congressional overlords. The administration’s much-hyped Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being sabotaged by Washington Republicans intent on blocking any White House nominee, whether Elizabeth Warren or some malleable hack, to lead it. “We can’t let special interests win this fight,” said Obama when he proposed the agency in October 2009. Well, he missed his moment to fight for both it and Warren, and the special interests won without breaking a sweat.
Rather than purge the crash’s crimes, Wall Street’s leaders are sticking to their alibi: Everyone was guilty of fomenting this “perfect storm,” and so no one is. Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever, and Masters of the Universe swagger is back. Even Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, about the only bank chief not to be caught with a suspect balance sheet or a $1,400 office trash can, has taken to channeling Schwarzman. In June, he publicly challenged Ben Bernanke about the intolerable burdens of potential regulation—this despite a 67 percent surge in JPMorgan’s first-quarter profits and a 1,500 percent raise in his own compensation from 2009 to 2010. As good times roar back for corporate America, it’s bad enough that CEOs are collectively sitting on some $1.9 trillion in cash-- much of it parked out of the IRS’s reach overseas-- instead of hiring. (How many jobs can you buy for $1.9 trillion? America’s total expenditure on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over a decade has been $1.3 trillion.) But what’s most galling is how many of these executives are sore winners, crying all the way to Palm Beach while raking in record profits and paying some of the lowest tax rates over the past 50 years.
The fallout has left Obama in the worst imaginable political bind. No good deed he’s done for Wall Street has gone unpunished. He is vilified as an anti-capitalist zealot not just by Republican foes but even by some former backers. What has he done to deserve it? All anyone can point to is his December 2009 60 Minutes swipe at “fat-cat bankers on Wall Street”-- an inept and anomalous Ed Schultz seizure that he retracted just weeks later by praising Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein as “very savvy businessmen.”
Obama can win reelection without carrying 10021 or Greenwich in any case. The bigger political problem is that a far larger share of the American electorate views him as a tool of the very fat-cat elite that despises him. Given Obama’s humble background, his history as a mostly liberal Democrat, and his famous résumé as a community organizer, this would also seem a reach. But the president has no one to blame but himself for the caricature. While he has never lusted after money-- he’d rather get his hands on the latest novel by Morrison or Franzen-- he is an elitist of a certain sort. For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys.
Frank's villain in this tragic story: Wall Street huckster and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who seems to have sold Obama not just a bill of goods, but an entire Wall Street-oriented economic team to kill any hopes for embracing a populist solution to the Wall Street caused cataclysm of the final Bush years.
By failing to address that populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him. Which the tea party did, dishonestly but brilliantly, misrepresenting Obama’s health-care-reform crusade as yet another attempt by the elites to screw the taxpayer. (The Democrats haplessly reinforced the charge with marathon behind-the-scenes negotiations with insurance and pharmaceutical-industry operatives.) Once the health-care law was signed, the president still slighted the unemployment crisis. A once-hoped-for WPA-style public-works program, unloved by Geithner, had been downsized in the original stimulus, and now a tardy, halfhearted stab at a $50 billion transportation-infrastructure jobs bill produced a dandy Obama speech but nothing else.
Obama soon retreated into the tea-party mantra of fiscal austerity. Short-term spending cuts when spending is needed to create jobs make no sense economically. But they also make no sense politically. The deficit has never been a top voter priority, no matter how loudly the right claims it is. At Obama’s inaugural, Gallup found that 11 percent of voters ranked unemployment as their top priority while only 2 percent did the deficit. Unemployment has remained a stable public priority over the deficit ever since, usually by at least a 2-to-1 ratio. In a CBS poll immediately after the Democrats’ “shellacking” of last November-- a debacle supposedly precipitated by the tea party’s debt jihad-- the question “What should Congress concentrate on in January?” yielded 56 percent for “economy/jobs” and 4 percent for “deficit reduction.”
Geithner has pushed deficit reduction as a priority since before the inauguration, the Washington Post recently reported in an article greeted as a smoking gun by liberal bloggers. But Obama is the chief executive. It’s his fault, no one else’s, that he seems diffident about the unemployed. Each time there’s a jolt in the jobless numbers, he and his surrogates compound that profile by farcically reshuffling the same clichés, from “stuck in a ditch” to “headwinds” (first used by Geithner in March 2009-- retire it already!) to “bumps in the road.” It’s true the administration has caught few breaks and the headwinds have been strong, but voters have long since tuned out this monotonous apologia. The White House’s repeated argument that the stimulus saved as many as 3 million jobs, accurate though it may be, is another nonstarter when 14 million Americans are looking for work.
...There’s not much Obama can do to alter the economy by 2012, given the debt-ceiling fight, the long campaign, and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs and, by extension, help Obama keep his own. But the central question before the nation couldn’t be clearer: Who pays? The taxpayers bailed out the elite; now it’s the elite’s turn to return the favor. Massive cuts to the safety net combined with scant sacrifice from those at the top is wrong ethically and politically. It is, in the truest sense, un-American. Obama knows this, and he hit a welcome note last week when he urged some higher corporate taxes for hedge funds and the like. But his forays in this direction are tentative and sporadic. You have to wonder why he isn’t seizing the moment to articulate and fight for the big picture instead of playing a lose-lose game of rope-a-dope with the Republicans on their budgetary turf.
Some Obama fans think it’s tactical genius that’s holding him back-- his fabled long ball. Americans are no longer as angry as they were in January 2009 so much as they are defeated, depressed, and jaded by the slow recovery and by four decades of raging inequality that tells them the deck is stacked no matter who’s in Washington. Better, then, not to ruffle these still waters-- or those easily rattled independents fetishized by political consultants-- and instead scare seniors about imminent Medicare cutbacks and plot deep-think policy initiatives that (like health-care reform) might fix America over time. But the voters’ placidity hardly augurs well for Democratic turnout in 2012. And it may not last. All that’s required is one more economic panic to shatter the phony peace and whip the rage back to center stage, once again to the right’s advantage.
“A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous,” Obama declared at his inauguration. What he said on that bright January morning is no less true or stirring now. For all his failings since, he is the only one who can make this case. There’s nothing but his own passivity to stop him from doing so-- and from shaking up the administration team that, well beyond the halfway-out-the-door Geithner and his Treasury Department, has showered too many favors on the prosperous. This will mean turning on his own cadre of the liberal elite. But it’s essential if he is to call the bluff of a fake man-of-the-people like Romney. To differentiate himself from the discredited Establishment, he will have to mount the fight he has ducked for the past three years.
The alternative is a failure of historic proportions. Those who gamed the economy to near devastation-- so much so that the nation turned to an untried young leader in desperation and in hope-- would once again inherit the Earth. Unless and until there’s a purging of the crimes that brought our president to his unlikely Inauguration Day, much more in America than the second term of his administration will be at stake.
Blue America never endorsed Obama in 2008, when there was a slim chance he might turn out to be a progressive. I'd say there's far less of a chance we'll be working towards his reelection next year. Instead, as you probably know, we'll be working to raise campaign funds for proven progressive leaders running for Congress. We've endorsed 5 who are running for the House so far and starting later this month we'll be adding to that list with candidates from Arizona and Wisconsin. Meantime, can you give us a hand? No matter who wins the presidency, we're going to need smart, aggressive progressives in Congress.