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Getting Real About Obama’s Bankster Comments

The White House went into major pushback mode on President Obama’s comments about bonuses and banking CEOs Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon yesterday. They offered the full context of the remarks and said that his line about “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth” was something he’s said many times before. Of course, that’s pretty much what I said yesterday, when I supplied the full comments and noted that this is part of Obama’s “on the one hand, on the other hand” M.O. of how he answers questions. It doesn’t exactly help fix the problem, expressed by Paul Krugman, that it’s politically tone-deaf to say nice things about the banksters at this stage, and that calling the financial industry “the free-market system” at this stage neglects the historic level of support still being given to it by the federal government.

But all you want to know about how Obama orients himself, and what criticism he responds to, can be found in this follow-up report from the same interview:

President Barack Obama said he and his administration have pursued a “fundamentally business- friendly” agenda and are “fierce advocates” for the free market, rejecting corporate criticism of his policies.

“The irony is, is that on the left we are perceived as being in the pockets of big business; and then on the business side, we are perceived as being anti-business,” Obama said in a Feb. 9 interview in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands tomorrow.

“You would be hard-pressed to identify a piece of legislation that we have proposed out there that, net, is not good for businesses,” he added. He predicted that legislation he will sign this year would cut corporate taxes by about $70 billion.

So there’s the “on the one hand, on the other hand” law professor approach, saying that the left sees him as a tool for big business, and the right perceives him as anti-business. But what follows that? An unmistakable assertion that he’s pro-business and that everything he’s done has helped them immensely. Well, yes, that’s the point. He reacts to this pressure from the left and the right only in one direction – to clear up misconceptions from the RIGHT, not from the left. He’s clearly more sensitive to the anti-business charge and bends over backwards to reassure folks that he’s really, really good for corporate America.

That’s precisely what people criticized yesterday – this pervasive sense that Obama views corporate CEOs as part of the same class, colleagues to be defended. This is occurring even as their lobbyists are fighting every single proposal he’s made on financial regulation. Later in the interview, he acknowledges that while insisting that his policies will be good for business.

Obama attributed feelings that he’s unsympathetic to business in part to “a spillover effect” from public criticism he has leveled at large banks.

He also cited instances when he has clashed with specific industries such as insurance companies over his health-care plan, energy companies over climate change, and banks over a financial-regulatory overhaul. Still, he argued, in each case the proposal benefited American businesses as a whole.

“You have got some pretty significant, well-funded industry interest groups who are adamantly opposed, and they have got a lot of sway,” Obama said.

And they are, indeed, swaying the Administration. There’s no need to read between the lines on that.

This just totally misreads the public moods. Nobody wants to hear apologias for the rich and powerful at this stage. The one in eight Americans on food stamps are really not interested in whether or not Obama is good for big business. They want job security, opportunity, and a path to getting ahead. And they’re not seeing it, while their President compares the CEOs most responsible for this wreck to baseball stars.

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David Dayen

David Dayen