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Obama’s Original Sin

The president’s failure to demand a reckoning from the moneyed interests who brought the economy down has cursed his first term, and could prevent a second.

Illustration by Eddie Guy

After 9/11, Rudy Giuliani went on Saturday Night Live to give New Yorkers permission to laugh again. But Mayor Bloomberg never did tell us when we could resume conspicuous consumption after the crash of 2008. And so, as we stumble through the second year of the official “recovery,” it’s been an improvisational return to high-end carousing in Manhattan.

A case in point was the late-May celebration of the centennial rededication of the New York Public Library. Surely no civic institution could be a more unimpeachable beard for a blowout. The dress code—no black tie—was egalitarian. The Abyssinian Baptist Church Gospel Choir, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, and that cute chorus from P.S. 22 in Staten Island—Glee diversity on steroids—were in the house along with some 900 invited guests, marquee names included (Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen). Bloomberg delivered a pre-dinner benediction from an altarlike perch on the main reading room’s balcony. “Free and open access to information may be the single most important component of any democratic society,” he said.

But it was impossible to banish toxic trace memories of the financial meltdown. Some two weeks earlier, the mayor had restricted the “free and open access” he now extolled. His fiscal 2012 budget called for slashing $40 million from the library system, a cut that would have mandated four-day weeks and the shutdown of a dozen branches.

There was also the awkward matter of the gala’s “corporate chair,” Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America. In the pageantry preceding Bloomberg’s remarks, the slightly flushed Moynihan, looking like a nervous ring bearer in a stately wedding ceremony, was among those singled out by the announcer while marching down the reading room’s long center aisle in a processional of library trustees. No doubt he earned this honor by ponying up to give more New Yorkers more books. But free and open access to the unexpurgated books of his own bank—and of its gutted acquisitions, Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial—would be a far more valuable gift to our democratic society. Just a week before the library fête, the Huffington Post reported that B of A was stonewalling the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s investigation into fresh charges of defrauding taxpayers. Down in Naples, Florida, one Bank of America victim, Warren Nyerges, a 45-year-old retired cop, was getting ready to take the law into his own hands. Through a bureaucratic blunder—or worse—the bank had hounded his family for over a month, trying to foreclose on his house even though it was entirely debt-free. Unable to recover the legal expenses inflicted by this harassment, Nyerges staged a ruckus by hiring a lawyer who “foreclosed” on the bank’s local branch instead.

Nyerges, at least, would pry loose a settlement of $5,772 in early June. We could use him in New York, perhaps packing heat. Justice has not come to the city or its publicly funded institutions, which wouldn’t be in the fiscal hole they’re in today had malefactors like Bank of America not wrecked the economy in the first place and required taxpayer bailouts (two in B of A’s case). Still, you can’t blame the NYPL for collecting whatever reparations it could from Moynihan. One of the library’s formative patrons, present at the original dedication exactly 100 years earlier, was Andrew Carnegie, a ruthless tycoon second to none. But Carnegie did build a steel empire that sped the growth of the nation. Our own Gilded Age’s legacy is the financial “products” that greased the skids of America’s decline. At the centennial gala, you couldn’t escape the paw print of Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group billionaire whose library gift had entitled him to blast his name on any stray expanse of marble on the 42nd Street building. Schwarzman is nothing if not a representative 21st-­century titan. His principal monument has been to himself­, namely a notorious over-the-top 60th-birthday party, exquisite in both its bad timing and bad taste, that he threw the year before the crash. (If you’re shelling out a million bucks for an entertainer, is Rod Stewart the best you can do?) He is perhaps most renowned of late for comparing Obama to Hitler because the administration dared propose taxing private-equity firms’ share of client profits at a rate higher than 15 percent. (He later apologized.)

On that Monday night, the Republican Schwarzman was a political outlier in the crowd, which was dominated by New York’s liberal elite, financial and cultural divisions. Even Moynihan has been a faithful Democratic donor. These were Obama’s people (myself, yes, among them), and the worldly, let’s-turn-the-page spirit in the library that night uncannily reminded me of the hubristic vibe of Obama’s White House: The worst of the downturn is past, the wobbly economy will eventually creep forward, let the healed too-big-to-fail banks move on, and pray that the lagging indicators (i.e., employment) will catch up. Indeed, it’s a certain swath of the New York liberal elite that helped reinforce that Obama mind-set to begin with. Uncorrected, it could lead the president to defeat in 2012, even against a roster of opponents that almost everyone there that night would cavalierly dismiss as clowns.

What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe. Time may heal most wounds, but not these. Chronic unemployment remains a constant, painful reminder of the havoc inflicted on the bust’s innocent victims. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father might have it, America will be stalked by its foul and unresolved crimes until they “are burnt and purged away.”

After the 1929 crash, and thanks in part to the legendary Ferdinand Pecora’s fierce thirties Senate hearings, America gained a Securities and Exchange Commission, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and the Glass-Steagall Act to forestall a rerun. After the savings-and-loan debacle of the eighties, some 800 miscreants went to jail. But those who ran the central financial institutions of our fiasco escaped culpability (as did most of the institutions). As the indefatigable Matt Taibbi has tabulated, law enforcement on Obama’s watch rounded up 393,000 illegal immigrants last year and zero bankers. The Justice Department’s bally­hooed Operation Broken Trust has broken still more trust by chasing mainly low-echelon, one-off Madoff wannabes. You almost have to feel sorry for the era’s designated Goldman scapegoat, 32-year-old flunky “Fabulous Fab” Fabrice Tourre, who may yet take the fall for everyone else. It’s as if the Watergate investigation were halted after the cops nabbed the nudniks who did the break-in.

Even now, on the heels of Bank of America’s reluctant $8.5 billion settlement with investors who held its mortgage-backed securities, the Obama administration may be handing it and its peers new get-out-of-jail-free cards. With the Department of Justice’s blessing, the Iowa attorney general, Tom Miller, is pushing the 49 other states to sign on to a national financial settlement ending their investigations of the biggest mortgage lenders. What some call a settlement others may find a cover-up. Time reported in April that the lawyer negotiating with Miller for Moynihan’s Bank of America just happened to be a contributor to his 2010 Iowa reelection campaign. If the deal is struck, any truly aggressive state attorneys general, like Eric Schneiderman of New York, will be shut down before they can dig into the full and still mostly uninvestigated daisy chain of get-rich-quick rackets practiced by banks as they repackaged junk mortgages into junk securities.

Those in executive suites at the top of that chain have long since fled the scene with the proceeds, while bleeding shareholders, investors, homeowners, and ­cashiered employees were left with the bills. The weak Dodd-Frank financial-reform law that rose from the ruins remains largely inoperative, since the actual rule-writing was delegated to understaffed agencies now under siege by banking lobbyists and their well-greased congressional overlords. The administration’s much-hyped Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being sabotaged by Washington Republicans intent on blocking any White House nominee, whether Elizabeth Warren or some malleable hack, to lead it. “We can’t let special interests win this fight,” said Obama when he proposed the agency in October 2009. Well, he missed his moment to fight for both it and Warren, and the special interests won without breaking a sweat.

Rather than purge the crash’s crimes, Wall Street’s leaders are sticking to their alibi: Everyone was guilty of fomenting this “perfect storm,” and so no one is. Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever, and ­Masters of the Universe swagger is back. Even Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, about the only bank chief not to be caught with a suspect balance sheet or a $1,400 office trash can, has taken to channeling Schwarzman. In June, he publicly challenged Ben Bernanke about the intolerable burdens of potential regulation—this despite a 67 percent surge in JPMorgan’s first-quarter profits and a 1,500 percent raise in his own compensation from 2009 to 2010. As good times roar back for corporate America, it’s bad enough that CEOs are collectively sitting on some $1.9 trillion in cash—much of it parked out of the IRS’s reach overseas—instead of hiring. (How many jobs can you buy for $1.9 trillion? America’s total expenditure on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over a decade has been $1.3 trillion.) But what’s most galling is how many of these executives are sore winners, crying all the way to Palm Beach while raking in record profits and paying some of the lowest tax rates over the past 50 years.

The fallout has left Obama in the worst imaginable political bind. No good deed he’s done for Wall Street has gone unpunished. He is vilified as an anti-capitalist zealot not just by Republican foes but even by some former backers. What has he done to deserve it? All anyone can point to is his December 2009 60 Minutes swipe at “fat-cat bankers on Wall Street”—an inept and anomalous Ed Schultz seizure that he retracted just weeks later by praising Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein as “very savvy businessmen.”

Obama can win reelection without carrying 10021 or Greenwich in any case. The bigger political problem is that a far larger share of the American electorate views him as a tool of the very fat-cat elite that despises him. Given Obama’s humble background, his history as a mostly liberal Democrat, and his famous résumé as a community organizer, this would also seem a reach. But the president has no one to blame but himself for the caricature. While he has never lusted after money—he’d rather get his hands on the latest novel by Morrison or Franzen—he is an elitist of a certain sort. For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys.

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