December 17, 2009
Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”. It was another classic work in his unique style. The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign: promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis. The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case: Taibbi himself). It didn’t work. The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong. A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi. The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read. At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:
It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy. In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises. If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.
Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode. Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks. The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”. On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend. Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers. After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:
. . . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.
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Said one CEO who attended: “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”
Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt. . . . He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”
Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis. As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:
And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks. They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone). Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.
At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”. Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:
By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own. While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults. And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.
The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless. With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate. The President’s critics have been quick to pounce. George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”. The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.” However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com. Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt: Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.” While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country. The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:
For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough. They question whether he has what it takes to get results: to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth. It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.
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But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader. Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office? He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?
Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging. But I would not give up hope for growth.
It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”. This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.