President Obama delivered a strong populist, pro-middle class speech last night. And being a strong populist pro-middle class kind of guy, I naturally liked it a lot. I wasn't the only one: voters loved it. Check out this dramatic overnight report from Stan Greenberg. The numbers jump off the page at you, with improvement scores on all kinds of key measures going dramatically higher. So it was a very good night for the President, and a good night for Democrats like me who really hate the idea of either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney being the guy giving the State of the Union speech next year. Obama set up the frame for all of 2012 extremely well, and Democrats go into the election year with a fighting chance in spite of a bad economy.
But underneath the surface, below the headlines, something else incredibly important happened last night, and in the days leading up to the speech -- something that I believe will have a lot more to do with the President's re-election than the SOTU speech. If he wants to run against Wall Street in this campaign, he needs credibility to do it, and he took a big step toward getting it last night.
The key word of the day is accountability. The progressive movement in this country came together to firmly and aggressively hold this President accountable, and he responded by announcing something that has the potential to finally- finally, finally- hold the big banks on Wall Street accountable. Now, we have to keep holding the President accountable to make sure the right things happen. But a huge, huge step was taken yesterday, and it may yet result in the biggest win progressives and middle class homeowners have had against Wall Street in many decades.
The backdrop is the ongoing fight over what to do about the deep and pervasive corruption of the big banks in terms of mortgage securitization. If that sounds like an obscure wonky issue, know this: it is at the dead center heart of the 2008 financial collapse, and over whether the housing sector and the economy in general comes back strong any time in the next decade. Over 25% of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, and until you deal directly and aggressively with that problem, the housing market will remain dead, and the economy will stay flat.
The reason that all this economic damage happened is financial fraud on a mass level: what NY AG Eric Schneiderman calls the old pump and dump. Bankers committed mortgage origination fraud, duping both home purchasers and investors who bought their crap, on a massive scale. Then bankers (some of the same and some new ones) intentionally inflated a bubble they knew could not sustain itself, and they did it on a massive scale as well. Then they bought off Moody's and the other ratings agencies to give Triple A ratings to this toxic mess. And then they commissioned perjury on a massive scale- possibly a million separate counts- through the robo-signing scam to try to foreclose on homes as fast as they could.
They made more money faster than any small set of people in world history, and it was based to a great extent on fraud. And the rest of us have been handed the bill: 8 million lost jobs, the $750 billion TARP bailout, the trillions in Federal Reserve bailout, 25% of homeowners underwater, millions of foreclosures. And by and large, the bankers who created this mess have yet to be held accountable in any way: they aren't in jail, they still have their jobs, very few of them have even had to pay fines.
For reasons I will never understand, certain Attorneys General and some members of the Obama administration started over a year ago going down the path of taking a small subset of these issues, the robo-signing, and trying to do a settlement deal with the bankers that would have been a disaster: a relatively small amount of money in exchange for a wide ranging release for legal responsibility in many different areas. This has been called by some a slap on the wrist, but it was far worse than that, because the bankers who caused this mess would have gotten off the hook for most or all of these sins with no investigations being done and no accountability being had.
Fortunately, progressives who follow these issues have been able to build a big movement around stopping this get-out-of-jail-free-card deal, and have been demanding a real, full-scale, wide-ranging investigation that included all the financial fraud issues, with a goal of forcing the banks to be held more fully responsible for the damage they have done to homeowners. Led in this fight by the remarkable Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman, who fought and scrapped for the right thing every step of the way, we appear to have won a big initial victory in this fight: Eric will be co-chairing a new inter-agency task force to investigate all forms of financial fraud. I am told by a senior White House official who has been involved in all these negotiations that as far as they are concerned, Eric is considered by them as first among equals, with the power to drive this task force forward. Knowing Eric, if he's not able to get done what he wants through this investigation, he will walk away anyway.
We still don't know what will happen in terms of the robo-signing settlement. From all the sources I have, the old settlement language releasing the banks from all legal liability on a broad range of issues is dead. And indeed, if it wasn't, this new task force would be a farce that I don't think Eric ever would have agreed to, because a broad release wouldn't have allows this new task force room enough to investigate and prosecute very many important things. Having felt all the heat from progressives on the settlement, I also think there is no way the White House would have agreed to the task force, and then openly undercut them with a broad legal release for the banks in a settlement agreement. But here's the other thing about the settlement which makes me wonder what is going to happen next: the bankers are now freaking out. Take a look at this today from Politico:
MORTGAGE SETTLEMENT CRUSHED? - Most election year SOTU proposals can be dismissed as pure political rhetoric with little policy significance, especially with a divided Congress. But several lawyers and lobbyists close to the tortured negotiations over a global settlement of state and federal mortgage abuse probes emailed M.M. saying they did not understand how such a deal could still be reached after the speech... One top banking lawyer emailed: "So now we know why Bill Daley resigned. Why hold back - why not just name Eliott Spitzer attorney general? ... The point of a settlement was certainty and finality. This totally undercuts that objective."
Whatever happens next on the settlement, Wall Street's hopes for all their fraud problems never being looked at are going away. If the bankers still agree to a settlement, the legal release will be so narrow it won't hurt the ability to do the broader investigatory and prosecutorial work that needs to be done.
So I am feeling optimistic this morning, but the proof is in the pudding. I think we'll know soon: is Eric really driving this task force? Will subpoenas start flying right away? Will actionable items be rolling out the task force door? The answers to these questions will be coming very soon, and we will know more within a few weeks. Ultimately, victory can't be declared until the banks actually move several hundred billion in mortgage writedowns, and some indictments are issued. But the task force announcement yesterday was a very big deal, one that progressives can and should be celebrating. We asked the administration for a bigger, broader, deeper investigation, and it looks very much like we got it. Now we have to keep doing that accountability thing, and make sure justice really is done.