WH Advisory Board Member: Confident In Obama, Worried About Wall Street Influence

05/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Firmly backing the president's agenda, a key member of the White House Economic Recovery Advisory Board nevertheless said on Friday that he was concerned that Barack Obama could become too swayed by the Wall Street influences that surround him.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Huffington Post, Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, offered a sweeping vision for the country's recovery, one premised on a stronger working and middle class. On several occasions, meanwhile, he proclaimed his confidence in Barack Obama's ability to carry out such a vision.

But it wasn't all wide-eyed optimism. Trumka said he believed that the president's stimulus package "wasn't big enough," and worried that, while a second one was likely needed, the White House only had the political capital for "one good shot." Perhaps his most concerned words were saved for the other advisers in Obama's orbit. Asked if the Wall Street roots of Obama's treasury and financial confidants -- including Timothy Geithner (who worked for the New York Fed) and Larry Summers -- were having an affect on the administration's policies, Trumka replied:

"I think that could happen. And it is up to us, the public, the labor movement, and other people of good will and long-term concern for the country to make sure that doesn't happen, including Congress, the Senate and the House. We need to go through re-regulation. And I think they are struggling right now to figure out a way to let this in. But you have to remember this is a place where we haven't been for a long time. If there were a neat, clean solution I would think someone would have charted it out by now."

The remarks came just days before criticism arose over the president's seemingly harder line when it came to administering the automotive industry bailout as opposed to that for the financial sector. Asked on Wednesday if Trumka saw a double standard in the White House forcing GM CEO Rick Wagoner to resign while letting bank CEOs stay in place, an AFL-CIO official referred the Huffington Post to statements made by the United Autoworkers Union, which were critical of the administration.

Where Trumka would come down on this topic is not hard to infer. One of the most respected and high-ranking union officials in the country, he traces the current economic malaise to policies that favored the financial sector over the working class.

"What we really should do and we haven't done this enough: most of the time when people are in a crisis they ask 'how do we get out.' I think we need to ask the question: 'how did we get in?'" he says. "It goes back a number of years. You can almost go back to Jimmy Carter, whenever Paul Volker [another Obama economic adviser] took over the Federal Reserve and said that he no longer concerned himself with full employment. He concerned himself with fighting inflation."

Trumka interrupted himself to tell a joke getting at his broader point.

"You have two farmers that have one cow," he says. "On Monday, Farmer A sells it to Farmer B for $100. On Tuesday, Farmer B sells it back to Farmer A for $150. On Wednesday, Farmer A sells it back to Farmer B for $200. On Thursday, Farmer A goes to buy the cow and it is not there. Farmer B slaughtered the cow and ate it. Farmer A says, 'why did you do that, we are making such a good living?' It emphasizes the difference between the real economy and the financial economy."

Drawing blue-collar humor out of even the direst of crises underscores, those close to Trumka say, the type of easy-to-relate-to approach that has defined the union leader's career. A third-generation coal miner, who started working in the mines at the age of 19, he quickly rose up the union ranks (first with the United Mine Workers) before being elected to his current post in 1995. Through it all he made a name for himself by pursuing dramatic and bold campaigns on issues of worker solidarity and, in many instances, racial equality. At UMWA, Trumka reached out to mineworkers fighting apartheid in South Africa. Most memorably, during the 2008 campaign, he gave an impassioned speech urging union-members to move beyond the color of Obama's skin.

Trumka's bond to Obama seems, at times, almost fraternal. A picture of him and the president adorns the table behind his desk and his office overlooks the White House. He is of the belief that the president deserves the political tools needed to pursue a change agenda. Reconciliation, for instance, "should not be eliminated" as a means of passing health care reform. The protests of the Republican Party, meanwhile, he considers counterproductive and even nonsensical.

"I don't care if you say no, if you have an alternative," he says. "But you can't just stay on the playing field yelling no all the time and then doing everything you can to passively help the president's policies not succeed. To me that is, in many ways, un-American."

And so, when asked to assess the president's thinking on any particular topic, Trumka can often venture into the meta-physical. On the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance, he expressed "absolute confidence" that Obama "will be there" for the labor community.

"Would I like to see him talk about it more?" he adds, when pressed why the president has offered only one-line endorsements of the union-backed measure since taking offce. "Of course, I always would. Anybody in the labor movement would... But we are confident that one: he does support it, and two: when the time is right he will make the maximum effort necessary to get that passed because in his heart, he knows that it is a necessary part of the solution."

And on the broader topic of economic recovery, while Trumka acknowledges areas of disagreement -- whether on the stimulus or Wall Street -- it is always qualified by sense of relief over who is occupying the Oval Office.

"With the president, I know where the president's instincts are. I know where the guts are and I trust them," he says. "And I think he has painted a tremendous vision for America and for us."