When it comes to dealing with Wall Street, President Obama seems to have traded in his position as our economy's commander-in-chief for a different role: pundit-in-chief. He and his top advisors are suddenly very big on urging, advocating, recommending, strongly suggesting, and cajoling.
During his weekly radio address, which focused on the need to get America's banks lending to small businesses again (wasn't that the reason we bailed out the banks in the first place?), the president declared that "it's time for those banks to fulfill their responsibility to help ensure a wider recovery, a more secure system, and more broadly shared prosperity." But "it's time for" is the kind of thing we pundits say: "It's time for the banks to do this and that... It's time for Congress to do this and that... It's time for the president to do this and that."
Then the president laid out his plan of action: "We're going to take every appropriate step to encourage them to meet those responsibilities."
Encourage them? How about make them? Columnists and bloggers encourage. Presidents execute. It's in the job description. Hence: the executive branch.
But when it involves America's banks, the White House all-too-frequently sounds as if it's just an innocent, helpless bystander -- and we get declarations like the one David Axelrod delivered on This Week: "We have limited sway other than moral suasion with some of these [banks]."
Is moral suasion really all we can do?
And take this attempt by Robert Gibbs to show that the administration realizes that talk isn't enough -- while failing to realize that just realizing that talk isn't enough is, in fact, also not enough.
"This is not hope," he said at a daily briefing. "This is more."
He continued: "I think the president... has extremely strong views on this topic, on the topic of lending. And I think we hope that the actions of the bank will be demonstrated."
So I guess sometimes it's actually not more than hope. And as for Gibbs' comment that the president has "strong views": again, I have strong views. The president has the power to turn strong views into transformative policies.
And even when the president does move from hopes and views to actions, the actions he chooses are less than muscular.
Take the aforementioned central question of how to get banks lending to small businesses again. During his radio address, the president lamented the fact that "too many small business owners are still struggling to get the credit they need. These are the very taxpayers who stood by America's banks in a crisis -- and now it's time for our banks to stand by creditworthy small businesses, and make the loans they need to open their doors, grow their operations, and create new jobs."
So what does President Obama intend to do about it? He's going to (wait for it)... convene a conference.
"I've asked Tim Geithner and Karen Mills," the president announced last week, "to convene a conference in the coming weeks that will bring together regulators, congressional leaders, lenders and small businesses to determine what additional steps we can take to get credit flowing to small businesses that want to expand and create more jobs."
Convene a conference? You hear that small business owners? Your problems are about to be solved, because the most powerful person on the planet is going to "convene a conference," which means selecting the conferees, picking the location, handing out press releases, writing reports and then, my favorite part, ignoring the reports and patting each other on the back for a job -- or conference -- well done. I'm sure executives up and down Wall Street are shaking in their loafers.
Of course, we all know that in Washington-speak "I'm going to convene a conference" is somewhere up there with "I'm going to establish a blue ribbon commission" in terms of kicking an issue down the road.
Because if this were really a high-priority for the administration, it could, you know, actually do something about it. Right now. The executive branch has plenty of weapons at its disposal to force banks still dependent on billions of dollars in taxpayer funds and guarantees to change behavior (yes, including Goldman Sachs, which still has $21 billion in FDIC guarantees).
For starters, the president controls who runs the Fed. Instead of just giving Ben Bernanke the green light for a second term, he could have made it contingent on forcing Bernanke to open up the Fed to full transparency. In fact, there is a proposal for an audit of the Fed in the House now. It is, not surprisingly, being fought by the Fed. And the White House is silent on the subject.
The president also has the power to make other key appointments, including the head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (who supervises the nation's commercial banks); the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the head of the Office of Thrift Supervision (the primary regulator of savings and loans); the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (which oversees derivatives).
He also controls who runs the Treasury Department -- which, believe it or not, is not legally mandated to be overseen and staffed by former Goldman Sachs executives and their friends. And there is nothing in the Constitution that says the Treasury Secretary has to be in near-constant contact with the heads of Goldman, Citigroup, and JP Morgan, often taking their calls late at night.
And then there is the president's power to regulate. There are currently a number of proposals making their way through Congress to reform our financial regulatory system. And they all have something in common. Loopholes and exemptions. And lots of 'em.
For example, in an editorial on Sunday, the New York Times said that two bills looking to regulate derivatives, which have passed out of committee, are "weak and unlikely to prevent another fiasco" and "carve out far too many exceptions," while another derivative-focused bill "denies regulators powers they need to fully police the market."
Meanwhile, the fundamental structural problems that led to the collapse are still not being addressed. A sense of urgency and crisis was exploited when it was useful in persuading taxpayers of the need to bail out the banks. But now that the banks are no longer in crisis -- and it's just the rest of the country that is in trouble -- the sense of urgency has faded. Because nothing says lack of urgency like "convene a conference."
Elizabeth Warren sums it up ominously: "All the things we were talking about that were serious, serious problems for the financial institutions seem to me are still serious, serious problems."
And Neel Kashkari, the former overseer of the TARP program under Bush, knows a lack of change when he sees it. "I think that the way that a Democratic administration talks about certain issues is probably a little different than the way a Republican administration does, and that's appropriate," he said. "But the substance of the actions, I think, are very consistent, and that's been important."
Important for Wall Street. And tragic for the rest of us -- both in terms of what hasn't been accomplished, and in terms of how much more misery it will lead to down the road. Misery that is avoidable -- if only Barack Obama would stop acting like a pundit, egging on change from the sideline, and start acting like the president, dictating the game from the middle of the field.
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On Friday, I'm taking part in a debate that will be broadcast on C-SPAN. Howard Dean and I will be crossing rhetorical swords with Dick Armey and John Kasich on the question "America's Future: Can Capitalism Survive?" The event will be moderated by Joe Scarborough. I plan to make the point that what we have right now is not actually Capitalism -- it's Corporatism. It's welfare for the rich. It's the government picking winners and losers. It's Wall Street having their taxpayer-funded cake and eating it too. It's socialized losses and privatized gains. I'd love to hear what other points you think I should make. Click here and leave me your suggestions in the comments section.
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