Obama, Bankers Sit Face to Face

By Binyamin Appelbaum and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lend more. Spend less.

That was President Obama's message yesterday during a meeting at the White House with the chief executives of the nation's largest banks. The president told the bankers he understood their critical role in renewed economic growth, and was committed to returning the industry to long-term health.

At the same time, Obama said the executives needed to understand and acknowledge the public's anger over the financial crisis and the massive paydays that have continued long after the industry went on the public dole.

"Excess is out of fashion," Obama said, according to participants in the gathering.

The president held himself up as an example, saying that he had not yet renovated the Oval Office and was still using George W. Bush's furniture, even noting the stains on the carpet. He urged the banks to show comparable "constraint and responsibility," adding that the nation had undergone a cultural shift.

The bankers, a roll call of industry titans including the heads of Bank of America, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, arrived with their own message: The government's steady support is a critical prerequisite for increased lending. The administration, they said, needs to provide more steadiness and support.

Several of the executives, each of whom had a chance to address the president, also offered specific accounts of their efforts to increase lending.

The meeting comes as the administration tries to craft a working relationship with an industry that is key to the nation's economic stability, while at the same time channeling a wave of public anger.

Just more than a week has passed since the outcry over bonuses to employees of American International Group led the president to call the payments an "outrage," and the House to pass a bill that would essentially seize through taxation the bulk of any bonus paid by a financial firm taking federal aid.

Obama has since tempered his rhetoric, and the Senate has slowed the legislation. Both moves are a response to warnings that hitting the banks would only hurt the economy.

Yesterday, Obama made this point explicitly, casting himself as a bulwark between an angry Congress and the banks who was seeking to push the industry toward necessary changes while shielding it from the consequences of populist rage.

"The president emphasized that Wall Street needs Main Street and that Main Street needs Wall Street," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

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