Obama's Old Deal

Article excerpt

Why the 44th president is no FDR--and the economy is still in the doldrums.

Barack Obama was "incredulous" at what he was hearing, said one of his top economic advisers. The president had spent his first year in office overseeing the biggest government bailout of the financial industry in American history. Together with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, he had kept Wall Street afloat on a trillion-dollar tide of taxpayer money. But the banks were barely lending, and the economy was still mired in high unemployment. And now, in December 2009, the holiday news had started to filter out of the canyons of lower Manhattan: Wall Street's year-end bonuses would actually be larger in 2009 than they had been in 2007, the year prior to the catastrophe. "Wait, let me get this straight," Obama said at a White House meeting that December. "These guys are reserving record bonuses because they're profitable, and they're profitable only because we rescued them." It was as if nothing had changed. Even after a Depression-size crash, the banks were not altering their behavior. The president was being perceived, more and more, as a man on the wrong side of an incendiary issue.

And so, prodded forward by Vice President Joe Biden--the product of a working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa.--the president began to consider getting tougher on Wall Street. "We kept revisiting it," said the economic adviser (who recounted details of the meetings only on condition of anonymity). One big proposal the White House hadn't adopted was Paul Volcker's idea of barring commercial banks from indulging in heavy risk taking and "proprietary" trading. In Volcker's view, America's major banks, which enjoy federal guarantees on their deposits, had to stop putting taxpayer money at risk by acting like hedge funds. This had become a grand passion for Volcker, a living legend renowned for crushing inflation 30 years before as Fed chairman. He had long been skeptical of financial deregulation. Beyond the ATM, Volcker asked, what new banking products had really added to economic growth? Exhibit one for this argument was derivatives, trillions of dollars in "side bets" placed by Wall Street traders. "I wish somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy," he barked at one conference.

Yet for most of that first year, Obama and his economic team had largely ignored Volcker, a sometime adviser. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and chief economic adviser Larry Summers still questioned whether Volcker's proposals were feasible. Now Obama was pressing them--very gingerly--to reconsider. "I'm not convinced Volcker's not right about this," Obama said at one meeting in the Roosevelt Room. Biden, a longtime fan of Volcker's, bluntly piped up: "I'm quite convinced Volcker is right about this!"

Obama's cautious, late embrace of Volcker was all too typical. He had arrived in office perceived by some as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet Obama hadn't acted much like FDR in the ensuing months. Instead he had faithfully channeled Summers and Geithner and their conservative approach to stimulus and reform. Early on, Obama's two key economic officials had argued down Christina Romer, the new chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, when she suggested a massive $1.2 trillion stimulus to make up for the collapse of private demand. They opted for slightly less than $800 billion. "We believe that this is a properly sized approach to move the economy forward," said Summers, who didn't want to expand the federal deficit or worry the bond market. With the recession still darkening their outlook, Summers and Geithner also didn't want to tamper too much with what they still saw as the economy's engine room: Wall Street. Partly on their advice, the president "explicitly decided not to break up all big financial institutions," said another top economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee. …