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Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history – not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.

Although the TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

*   *   *

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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Betting Against Obama

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Most Congressional Democrats and supporters of President Obama are anxious to see an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevertheless, as of this writing, the President has yet to even vote “present” on this issue.  Obama’s waffling throughout the tax cut debate has once again exposed his weak leadership skills, which are never overlooked by the people at Fox News:

“The players on the field want a game plan,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to be candid about caucus sentiment. “There’s an increasing frustration from members that there is not a plan … There is just tremendous frustration.  I mean, where are they?”

The aide noted that Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday and most likely Thursday, intend to discuss the tax cuts, but there is one notable absence.

“Where is the White House?  There’s no one here talking to us today or tomorrow,” the aide fumed   .   .   .

*   *   *

Democrats are waiting for an express statement from the President, despite the fact that Obama opened the window on a temporary extension just after the midterm elections.

“We should have done this already.  Our bosses go home and are hounded about this.  I don’t get it.  Just extend the cuts for a few years and be done with it.  There are way too many fingers in the wind on this from both sides (of the aisle),” another senior Democratic aide involved in tax policy for years told Fox.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, began a recent blog posting with this observation:

The President says a Republican proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone for two years is a “basis for conversation.”  I hope this doesn’t mean another Obama cave-in.

Unfortunately, in all likelihood it does mean “another Obama cave-in”  — and it probably won’t be the last.  Professor Reich ended that piece with this rhetorical question:

If the President can’t or won’t take a stand now — when he still has a chance to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck Congress — when will he ever?

Answer:  Never (unless it means taking a stand – once again – in support of the Wall Street banks).

In the mean time, while Obama dithers, a group of 40 “Patriotic Millionaires” has stepped forward after writing a letter to the President, in which they urged him not to renew the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year.  Joe Conason included the text of that letter in a recent piece for Salon.  The Patriotic Millionaires expressed an opinion, which the President apparently fears might not be shared by his top campaign contributors:

We have done very well over the last several years.  Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share.  We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers.  The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

A similar stance was taken by billionaire financier Warren Buffet, during an interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News program This Week.  When confronted by Amanpour about the claim that those tax cuts for the very wealthy are what energize business and capitalism, Buffet gave this response:

“The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.  But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,” Buffett explained.

Writing for The Hill, Alexander Bolton discussed the frustrations experienced by Congressional Democrats, who are often left twisting in the wind while the President works out a strategy for traveling up a fork in the road:

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted.

As the moment approaches for 2012 Presidential aspirants to declare their candidacy, Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are widely understood.  If the Democrats want to hold the White House, somebody with some guts should step forward pretty soon.


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