May 7, 2012
OBAMA’S NOT-SO-HOT DATE WITH WALL STREET:
[N]egotiations over the implementation of the new Dodd-Frank financial regulations had made large Wall Street institutions, chiefly banks, wary of open war with the White House. “Most of them are scared stiff of the president,” a top Romney bundler on Wall Street told me recently. “Including the ones on our side.”
But by the beginning of the year, it had also become obvious to many on Wall Street that Obama’s campaign was going to take a populist turn. Some bankers believed that the administration’s strategy was to talk tough in public and play damage control in private, and they were sick of playing along.
One day in late October, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, slipped into the Regency Hotel in New York and walked up to a second-floor meeting room reserved by his aides. More than 20 of Obama’s top donors and fund-raisers, many of them from the financial industry, sat in leather chairs around a granite conference table.
Messina told them he had a problem: New York City and its suburbs, Obama’s top source of money in 2008, were behind quota. He needed their help bringing the financial community back on board.
For the next hour, the donors relayed to Messina what their friends had been saying. They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators.
Messina politely pushed back. It’s not the president’s fault that Americans are still upset with Wall Street, he told them, and given the public’s mood, the administration’s rhetoric had been notably restrained.
One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich?
As Orrin Judd writes, that’s from the New York Times, not the Onion. (Though admittedly sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.)
But hey, what could go wrong with such a speech? Other than America’s class warrior-in-chief might use soothing, diplomatic language that suggests getting opponents’ faces and punching back twice as hard? Or these earlier examples of the president’s pro-business rhetoric:
Here’s Barack Obama on the campaign trail, in February of 2008:
So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.
There’s this quote from an attorney who deposed Chrysler’s president in May of 2009:
“It became clear to us that Chrysler does not see the wisdom of terminating 25 percent of its dealers… It really wasn’t Chrysler’s decision. They are under enormous pressure from the President’s automotive task force.”
“My administration,” the president told bank CEOs in April of 2009, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
Obama as quoted by the New York Times in March of 2009 on AIG bonuses:
“I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I’m angry,” Mr. Obama said, his voice reaching a peak seven days after learning of the bonuses given to employees of the American International Group. “What I want to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way.”
Obama during the BP oil spill:
“I was down there a month ago, before most of these talkin’ heads were even paying attention to the gulf. A month ago…I was meeting with fishermen down there, standin’ in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be. and I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminare, we talk to these folks because they potentially…have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”
Obama in April of 2010, in the middle of a speech on Wall Street “reform” blurted out, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”
In June of 2008, Jim Geraghty spotted this telling passage in a book by David Mendell titled Obama: From Promise to Power:
“[Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day,” said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who enticed Obama to Chicago from his Manhattan office job. “The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions… that was scary to him.”
That’s the pro-business president you want giving a “healing speech about class and inequality,” and urging “an end to attacks on the rich.”
Today at the Washington Post, former GWB speechwriter Michael Gerson notes that “The brand of the Obama reelection campaign, so far, is ruthlessness:”
Obama’s agenda, strategy and rhetoric are now solidly blue — perhaps for sound political reasons. But Obama’s talent for inspiration was the single most interesting thing about him as a politician. Without that aspiration, what is left of his appeal? This is the reason his Ohio speech seemed so boring, particularly in comparison to his speeches four years ago. There was little that couldn’t be said by any liberal politician, at any time. Obama has lost more than a campaign talking point; he has lost one of the main reasons for his rise.
What principle or purpose unites Obama’s initial campaign with his current reelection effort? There is little obvious continuity — apart from one, unchanging commitment. The cause that has outlasted hope and change is Obama himself.
There have always been two parts of Obama’s political persona, both of which were essential to his rapid advancement. There is the Hyde Park Obama, lecturing on constitutional law, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr and transcending old political divisions. There is also the South Side Obama, who rose in Chicago politics by doing what it takes.
This is not unusual. All politicians believe that their tenacity and competitiveness are servants to their idealism. But as the Hyde Park Obama fades, the South Side Obama becomes less appealing.
All of the atmospheric elements of politics — unity, bipartisanship and common purpose — are significantly worse than four years ago. This is not all Obama’s fault. But he is choosing — in a campaign so nasty, so early — to make it worse. At some point, ruthlessness just leaves ruins.
To paraphrase Peter Arnett, Obama apparently believes it’s necessary to destroy the country in order to save it.
RELATED: Charles Krauthammer on the “Divider-in-Chief.”