President Barack Obama has now, unfortunately, embraced the anti-capitalist, anti-markets Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement as a way of continuing to occupy the Oval Office for another term.
At the Martin Luther King Memorial dedication, Obama said King would “want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.” (Like, you know, the secretaries, IT guys … and wealthy potential campaign contributors.) Also over the weekend, senior Obama adviser David Plouffe said critiquing big banks will be “one of the central elements of the campaign next year.” And in a conference call with reporters, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest adopted the phraseology of the OWS rabble, saying the president would make sure “the interests of the 99 percent of Americans are well-represented” on his upcoming three-day bus trip through Virginia and North Carolina.
To many Republicans and conservatives, Obama the Class Warrior is now front and center. It’s this incarnation that they’ve been warning Americans actually resides beneath the president’s centrist, technocratic exterior—the guy who told Joe the Plumber that he wanted to “spread the wealth around,” the left-wing professor who said it was “theoretically” O.K. for the Supreme Court to redistribute wealth. Let Obama really be Obama, and this is what you get.
Yet here’s what’s weird: Despite Obama’s attacks on Wall Street and the wealthy, his policies have been pro-big bank. The Obama administration favored the TARP bailout. It rejected the idea of an FDIC-like takeover of troubled banks in early 2009. It supported letting banks keep assets on their books at inflated values. It rejected calls for a financial transaction tax. It dismissed calls to break up big banks, reinstate Glass Steagall, or place hard caps on their size. No wonder a major bank lobbyist told me in 2010 that he had “no problem with Timmy [Geithner.]”
Or Geithner’s boss, really, other than the tough rhetoric. Financial reform is the law of the land, but Too Big To Fail still exists as evidenced by the funding advantages big banks have over small banks. (Lenders are betting Uncle Sam is still ready to catch them if they fall.)
Going after banks may be smart politics. But there’s a danger that Obama’s election-season, populist flip is undercutting public support for both free-market, entrepreneurial capitalism and real reform of America’s financial sector. Obama campaign guru David Axelrod told ABC News that he thinks “there’s this question about what [Mitt Romney's] core principles are.”
Maybe he should wonder the same about his own guy, too.