Being a Populist Is Tough

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Last night, I was chatting with a senior White House aide—a fellow with a, shall we say, elite background—about how easy it should be for President Barack Obama and the Democrats to win the message war on Wall Street reform against Republicans in league with Big Finance. “We’re gonna win this one,” he exclaimed. “We’ve got them, we’ve really got them.” But, I noted, Obama still had to play tough with the GOPers and the Wall Streeters—and do so consistently, in order to depict for the American public a clear narrative: we’re on your side, and the GOPers are in bed with the banks. This aide noted that, given his own pedigree, he himself could not convincingly play the populist on cable TV. He did acknowledge that the White House had to signal repeatedly that it was willing to pound Wall Streeters and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Yet the White House has gone back and forth in terms of how tough to play the populist card. Some days, Obama says he’s as angry as other Americans with the financial schemers; other days, he meets with banking leaders at the White House and holds polite chats with them. This internal tug-of-war between confrontation and cooption was reflected in an exchange between press secretary Robert Gibbs and a reporter that occurred at Thursday’s White House daily press briefing:

Q: Robert, on that point about the President going to Wall Street, what we can expect in terms of his tone?  Various times he’s said if they want to fight, I’m ready for a fight.  He’s called bankers “fat cats.”  But other times he’s said there needs to be a balance and you need to not hurt private enterprise, basically, and he’d be careful.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I mean, look, the President — I don’t think that — I don’t think calling out obscene bonuses but also saying that we don’t want to overly or unduly burden private enterprise and American business from operating — I think, quite frankly, financial reform — I think that is quite complementary to financial reform.  I think there are a number of people, not the least of which are hundreds of millions of Americans who have played by the rules, even as the economy has collapsed around them.

So I think that the President will — I mean, you’ve heard the President over the past not only couple weeks but over the last few years discuss the notion that the reason why we have to have strong rules in place, that those rules are for the benefit of the American people; that we are not incentivizing a set of risky decisions where banks reap all of the reward yet none of the responsibility for the decisions that they make.

But the President is a strong believer that our financial system is part of a larger system of commerce that we all treasure.  We just have to have rules in the road — rules for the road in place so that we don’t find ourselves at the mercy of a series of risky decisions as we have in the past.

It’s not easy being a populist if you don’t want to offend.

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