President Shifts Emphasis From Wall Street to Budget

President Obama meets with lawmakers on Captol Hill to try to sell them on his 2010 budget proposal. Behind him is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
President Obama meets with lawmakers on Captol Hill to try to sell them on his 2010 budget proposal. Behind him is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Alec MacGillis and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 26, 2009

In attempting to harness public anger over the financial crisis on behalf of his budget, President Obama is confronting the politically uncomfortable fact that the success of his long-term agenda and Wall Street's recovery are intertwined.

That acknowledgment is reflected in the president's shift in tone from his tempestuous town hall appearances in California last week to Tuesday evening's more sober appraisal of who is responsible for the frozen credit markets, insolvent banks and burst real estate bubble.

He condemned Wall Street "Ponzi schemes, even when they're legal, where a relatively few do spectacularly well while the middle class loses ground" during a March 18 town hall event in California's Orange County, which is now closing elementary schools because of falling property tax revenue. Back inside the Beltway, the president said during his prime-time news conference that some of us "can't afford to demonize every investor and entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit."

In the balance as he attempts to walk this line is Obama's long-term agenda, embodied in the budget he was selling on Capitol Hill yesterday and which a House panel passed on a party-line vote late last night. To build public support for his $3.6 trillion package of plans to reform health care, energy and education, Obama is attempting a kind of transference -- persuading Americans that the excesses crystallized by bonuses for the AIG unit at the center of the financial collapse can only be fixed by the systemic overhaul of the economy represented by his budget.

If Obama is successful, it would not only strengthen the case for his budget but also relieve some of the political pressure on Wall Street, which will help determine the success of his first term. But it is not an easy linkage to make, because it means transferring public desire for immediate action -- and even retribution -- to the promise of a longer-term transformation of the country.

"I'm as angry as anybody about those bonuses that went to the very same individuals who brought our financial system to its knees, partly because it's yet another symptom of the culture that brought us to this point," he said Tuesday. "But one of the most important lessons to learn from this crisis is that our economy only works if we recognize that we're all in this together."

Obama's attempt to channel public anger reflects the White House's belief that he is constrained against engaging in too much Wall Street bashing -- or outright punishment -- by his reliance on the financial sector to fulfill Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's new plan for rescuing the nation's banks. After declaring that his administration would "pursue every legal avenue" to block the AIG bonuses, Obama was by Sunday signaling that he did not approve of legislation sweeping through Congress to slap a 90 percent tax on the payouts.

Adding to that constraint is the fact that Obama's campaign received considerable financial support from Wall Street, and that his advisers include several proteges of Citigroup executive Robert E. Rubin, a former Treasury secretary.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Obama would have been better off capitalizing more fully on public ire but was being held back by the Rubin proteges.

"He hurts himself enormously by being seen as associated with the bankers," Baker said. "Purely pragmatically, you have an opportunity here where these Wall Street guys are really hated, they've been a really pernicious presence in the economy for a quarter-century, and the idea of jumping on them when they're down makes a lot of sense. This idea that they're going to help things -- well, they're not our buddies. There's a real fundamental conflict there, and he's hoping he can paper it over."

But Obama's preference for talking about "the system and culture" that produced the bonuses instead of chastising executives more directly also reflects his tendency to analyze problems in the abstract instead of personalizing them. Throughout the campaign, he cast the country's ills as part of an overall imbalance, an off-kilter economy and a broken political culture. There was populism in his pitch -- he had started out as a community organizer, after all -- but it was not the sort given to rousing diatribes.

To the extent that Obama has moralized about the financial crisis, his pique has mostly been addressed at broad trends and policy questions instead of named targets. His budget proposal was introduced with a stern tone that implied that his plan, with its tax increases for the wealthy, was the real answer to Wall Street excess. "We arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility," he stated in introducing the plan. Pitching the budget at the White House last week, he cast this decade's prosperity as a "bubble economy" based on "reckless speculation" and Wall Street "shenanigans."

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