Obama and Wall St. — it’s not 1936


The Barack Obama who went to Wall Street last week to ask investment bankers to support new financial regulations had little in common with the fire-breathing Franklin D. Roosevelt of 1936 who denounced “financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” and added pungently, “I welcome their hatred.”

This wasn’t even the Barack Obama of a few months ago who denounced “fat-cat bankers” for awarding themselves bonuses after being saved by government bailouts. “Shameful,” he said then.

Instead, last week’s Wall Street Obama was conciliatory, flattering the fat cats in his audience as “titans of industry” and asking for their help.


“I urge you to join me not only because it is in the interest of your industry,” he said, “but also because it’s in the interest of your country.”

It was a practical pitch rather than a call to patriotic duty. And it was a reflection of why Obama is heading toward a legislative victory on financial regulatory reform: He’s doing what he does best, building alliances among seemingly opposing forces around a politically pragmatic, if imperfect, compromise.

Only a month ago, in the aftermath of the bruising partisan battle over healthcare and the tumult of the “tea party” backlash, the ideal of bipartisan legislation looked dead in Washington. Republicans thought they were on a roll; there was no percentage in any compromise with Obama.

But financial regulation has abruptly changed that equation. Republican senators, including Southern conservatives such as Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bob Corker of Tennessee, want a bill they can vote for and are negotiating avidly with their Democratic colleagues to that end.

What’s made this debate so different from healthcare? Three things.

First, imposing tougher regulations on Wall Street is widely popular among all voters, not just Democrats. A Pew Research poll released last week found that while most Americans think Washington has “gone too far” in regulating business, they make one important exception: They want more regulation of Wall Street. Even some investment bankers agree that more regulation could be a good thing.

Second, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offered up the tea-party remedy for collapsing banks — “Let them fail!” — and it flopped. Members of his own caucus weren’t ready to welcome that much potential chaos into the marketplace.

Third, Obama and his allies, including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, have played their hand well. They’ve warned Wall Street that resisting all new regulation would be folly given the public anger at the fat cats’ outlandish profits. But they’ve also watered down regulatory proposals to make them more palatable to the handful of Republican senators whose support they need.

There’s always been widespread agreement on most of the fundamental pieces of financial reform — another important contrast with the healthcare debate. Everyone agrees that banks and other major financial institutions should be restrained from taking so much risk that they become vulnerable to financial bubbles. Everyone agrees that there should be better monitoring to identify “systemic risks” before they explode. Almost everyone agrees that most trading in derivatives, the unregulated bets that got many institutions in trouble, should be moved onto exchanges and made more transparent. And almost everyone agrees that there should be a consumer financial protection agency to help ordinary people avoid pitfalls and scams.

The debate, of course, is over how to accomplish those ends. The bill Dodd is moving through the Senate would put most of those problems in the hands of existing regulators, mainly the Federal Reserve. The bill the House passed last year, written mostly by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), is tougher; where Dodd would let the Fed set capital requirements, for example, Frank would write them into law. Frank’s approach may be too rigid, but Dodd’s, which Obama has essentially endorsed, relies heavily on the same regulators who failed last time.

Dodd’s bill, for example, would put the job of monitoring systemic risks in the hands of a “council of regulators” drawn from the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other existing agencies. But will the regulators really be willing to criticize the agencies they work for?

It’s also not clear that either of these bills solves the problem of “too big to fail” — the dilemma of either bailing out a big firm on the verge of collapse, or risking a greater crisis if you don’t. Both bills try to head off those risks, but neither actually requires banks to get small enough that their failure won’t matter. There is a bill for that, proposed by two Senate liberals, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ted Kaufman of Delaware, but it’s not going anywhere.

Instead, when Obama promised Thursday that his proposals would “put a stop to taxpayer-funded bailouts,” it was a carefully crafted phrase. If there are any government-run financial rescue operations in the future, the administration says, they should be funded by the financial industry — and they shouldn’t be bailouts but “breakups” that liquidate the failing firm and fire its executives.

Obama’s approach, as with healthcare reform, is incremental. It tries to bring everyone into the room, bankers and health insurance companies alike. It doesn’t scrap the institutions that created the problem; it builds on them.

So he isn’t the populist FDR of 1936; he isn’t even the reformist FDR of 1933, who (as Obama noted on Thursday) established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in defiance of the horrified bankers of the day. Maybe it’s time to give the FDR analogy a rest.