Monday, May 24, 2010

The Thrill is Gone: Obama and Wall Street

For the next few days it will surely be the talk of the town: John Heilemann's extended narrative of the dysfunctional relationship between President Obama and Wall Street bankers. Link here.

I doubt that it's author would even claim to be offering objective journalism, so I will not credit him with it. In fact, Heilemann is advancing a narrative that is making Wall Street the scapegoat for the failures of Obama's fiscal policies.

Heilmann seems aware of the White House strategy. He begins his article with the simple fact that after losing the Senate race in Massachusetts, the Obama team decided it had to change the message. Seeing populist rage directed toward it, it chose to try to redirect that rage toward Wall Street.

Strangely enough, after making this salient point, Heilmann proceeds to create a narrative that presents the White House line.

I have been following this development on the blog... here and here.

Story lines have their virtues and their limits. Describing the relationship between Obama and Wall Street as a romance gone bad makes sense. I have used it myself. Everyone can understand it from personal experience.

But you can also describe it as an illusion that hits reality.

Realities are often more complex, more intricate, and more opaque than stories. Most people have a lot better idea of why a love affair goes sour than they do of why the financial system nearly melted down in 2008. Since precious few people understand the financial system it is very easy to cast blame wherever you like and it is extremely difficult for bankers to defend their actions.

Thus, they are easy targets.

Not only for the administration, but also for John Heilmann. Begin with his title: "Obama Is From Mars; Wall Street Is From Venus: Psychoanalyzing one of America's most dysfunctional relationships."

On the one side you have the manly Obama, the man in charge, the incarnation of the god of war, fighting the good fight against economic oblivion. On the other side you have a bunch of hysterical, effeminate Wall Street whiners and carpers who are mostly interested in their mega-bonuses. And the themes developed in the article bear this out: Obama is cool, clear-headed, making decisions based on what is best for the country; Wall Street bankers are angry, intemperate, self-interested, greedy crybabies.

So you have an idealized version of Obama contrasted with a derogatory caricature of Wall Street bankers. On top of it, Heilmann also demeans Venus, who is anything but the way he describes the bankers.

In Heilmann's narrative Wall Street bankers caused the crisis and Obama has bailed them out. Not only that but he rescued the world economy. In his words: "He and his team could credibly claim to have saved the world economy from falling off a cliff."

Of course, this is an idealization, the kind that sees no fault, the kind that accompanies true love. As with most intemperate expressions of love, it obfuscates reality.

In the interest of advancing the narrative Heilmann cleverly ignores the role that Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke played in rescuing the financial system and stopping it from falling off of a cliff. In much the same way Obama himself likes to talk about the great progress that's being made in Iraq, as he did Saturday at West Point, while conveniently failing to give any credit to his predecessor.

Surely, a substantial number of Wall Street bankers were seduced by Obama. They fell for the idealized image of the savior, the agent of change, the man who would rescue them and the world. By now they seem to have recognized that they were duped by a mirage; the candidate they supported is not the president who is governing.

They were simply defrauded. For that they are right to feel anger. When you have been the victim of a massive fraud, you will, once you discover it, feel considerable anger.

The same might well be true of larger public that voted for Obama and that now feels deceived, defrauded, and, consequently, enraged.

Despite what the media suggest, there are times when it's right to feel anger. There are times when your emotions are appropriate and suited to the situation.

Whatever Heilmann means when he says that he is psychoanalyzing a dysfunctional relationship, he is implying that there is something wrong with Wall Street's anger against Obama. He is implying that they are transferring the unresolved anger issues they have with someone else to the innocent savior president.

I would not preclude the fact that many people, from Wall Street and Main Street, feel some measure of anger at themselves for having been duped. Clearly, they no longer wish to leave any ambiguity about their feelings, and about their willingness to vouch for Obama.

The real question is: how did these very savvy bankers get tricked into vouching for Barack Obama.

As Heilmann reports, the bankers who first met Obama in late 2006 were underwhelmed. But they eventually came around, seeing him as someone with: "brains, composure, bi-partisan instincts, an aversion to class-based conflict."

When it came down to a choice between the seemingly rational Obama and the seemingly overwrought John McCain, they were happy to cast their votes for Obama.

For the general public the information about Obama's past associations, the company he kept, should have sufficed to persuade them that he was anything buy bipartisan and averse to class-based conflict.

Wall Street bankers probably made their decisions based on personal impressions. They are sufficiently important to win real face time with the candidate; they formed an impression of a live human being; they did not take their cues from Sean Hannity.

You might say that they would have done well to follow their first, somewhat negative impression of Obama. If not, they could have gotten a hint from the fact, as Heilmann reports, that the first meeting between Obama and Wall Street took place in an office that belonged to George Soros.

Had they recognized the hand and the influence of a hyper-partisan purveyor of political extremism they might have saved themselves the indignity of having to walk back from their role in helping Barack Obama become president of the United States.

No comments: