Obama aides contrast Wall Street bonuses with unemployment

By Michael A. Fletcher and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Monday, October 19, 2009

Top Obama administration officials sharply criticized Wall Street firms planning to pay big bonuses, pointedly contrasting the soaring profits some financial companies have recorded in recent days with continuing high jobless rates across the country.

The firms are benefiting from government efforts, some initiated by the Obama administration, to stabilize and restore confidence to the capital markets after a global financial crisis that began last year. With their fortunes rebounding, the Wall Street firms plan to pay tens of billions of dollars to executives.

"The bonuses are offensive," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on ABC's "This Week," adding that banks must do more to support lending across the country and should stop their lobbying efforts aimed at blocking the passage of new financial regulations that are being prepared in Congress.

"They ought to think through what they are doing, and they ought to understand that a year ago a lot of these institutions were teetering on the brink, and the United States government and taxpayers came to their defense," Axelrod said. "They have responsibilities, and they ought to meet those responsibilities."

The Obama administration has defied popular opinion in backing huge government bailouts to try to rescue much of the nation's auto industry and stabilize the financial system, steps it saw as critical to fostering an economic recovery. At the same time, it has attempted to tap into popular anger at corporate America with outspoken criticism of bonuses, perks and other practices that have long been staples of big business.

Many banks and other firms have been enjoying fat profits this year in their trading and investment arms. But much of this success has come as a result of new government policies that have kept interest rates low -- on debt and mortgages, for example.

The White House has been taking an increasingly confrontational tone against Wall Street bonuses and lobbying efforts to prevent its broad plan for new financial regulations. Obama has given at least two high-profile speeches in recent weeks urging the financial industry to stop lobbying Congress not to pass laws that would, among other things, create a new agency to police credit card and mortgage lending.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel chided Wall Street firms for neglecting their responsibilities "in the short period of time where they have a level of normalcy because of what the government did to help them."

"Not only do they come for a bailout . . . they're now back trying to fight a consumer office and the type of protections that will prevent another type of situation where the economy is taken over the cliff by the actions taken on Wall Street and financial market," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Recent news of a pay package for Bank of America's outgoing chief executive, Kenneth D. Lewis, illustrates the challenge facing the White House and Treasury. The Treasury's pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, persuaded Lewis not to take any compensation for his work this year after the bank received $45 billion in government aid.

But because of Lewis's contract with the bank, he is still on track to receive nearly $70 million in retirement money, something Feinberg can't prevent.

A fiscal predicament

The administration's criticism of corporate bonuses highlights the quandary it faces as the nation slowly emerges from the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. While Wall Street has regained some of its old swagger as profits have returned and other parts of the economy show signs of new life, unemployment continues to rise despite the huge economic stimulus plan enacted in February.

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