An overdue focus on financial reform

Since his February 2009 high-water mark of nearly 80 percent, President Barack Obama has seen his approval ratings drop about 30 points. If approval ratings are the primary currency of a president's political capital, that's a lot of money down the drain.

Strip away any effects from how he handled two inherited wars, or culture war issues like abortion, and what largely accounts for Mr. Obama's changing fortunes are his actions on one policy and his inaction on another.

The action came hot and heavy, if slow and unsteady, on health care reform. Mr. Obama hoped to have a reform bill signed, sealed and deliver before Labor Day last year. After a long and contentious fight, he was fortunate to get one passed by St. Patrick's Day of this year. The Dow and the NASDAQ securities markets surged this past year, but Mr. Obama's health care advocacy drew down his reserves of political capital.

As for inaction, until this past week Mr. Obama has not focused as intently on financial regulation and corporate fraud as he has other issues. Mind you, this is the same Mr. Obama who, as a presidential candidate, delivered a spirited speech about financial reform in New York's Cooper Union back in March 2008 — six months ahead of the September crash.

Keep in mind that "change" meant different things to different people during the 2008 election. White liberals saw in Mr. Obama an erudite, Kennedyesque figure. Minorities saw a chance to make history.

But many moderates and independents surely hoped Mr. Obama represented another kind of change. They wanted him to disrupt the cozy and often incestuous relationships between the committee rooms of Capitol Hill, the meetings rooms of K Street special interest groups, and the boardrooms of Wall Street.

These voters expected a new Teddy Roosevelt, a financial Rough Rider for the new century. They wanted to reverse the trend toward an American economy where profits are privatized for the supposed financial masters of the universe, yet the losses are socialized to the rest of us. They voted for a reckoning.

So why hasn't there been a public spectacle of financial heads rolling? Greedy investors with a knack for inventing risky new financial instruments and an aversion to regulatory oversight almost brought our economy to its knees, and some still made out like bandits while the rest of us suffered the damage. It's safe to say taxpayers wanted to see somebody held responsible or at least scolded.

So it was nice to learn this past week that the Securities and Exchange Commission finally issued a formal complaint against Goldman Sachs. Few firms are as connected as Goldman at such high levels in Washington, and with both parties. Goldman execs helped bankroll the presidential candidacy of Bill Clinton, who later tapped Goldman former co-chairman Richard Rubin to be secretary of the Treasury. George W. Bush also appointed a former Goldman chairman to be his Treasury secretary.

But the complaint turned out to be more whimper than bang. "After 18 months of investigation, the best the government can come up with is an allegation that Goldman misled some of the world's most sophisticated investors about a single 2007 ‘synthetic' collateralized debt obligation (CDO)?," editorialized one national paper. "Far from being the smoking gun of the financial crisis, this case looks more like a water pistol."

That was the Wall Street Journal, by the way.

"Consumer financial protections are currently spread across seven different government agencies," President Obama said last week in a statement emailed out to supporters stressing the importance of regulatory reform. "Wall Street reform will create one single Consumer Financial Protection Agency — tasked with preventing predatory practices and making sure you get the clear information, not fine print, needed to avoid ballooning mortgage payments or credit card rate hikes."

Don't get me wrong: Emotionally satisfying rants and outrage will not solve anything. Sober, rational and practical reforms will be needed.

But President Obama needs to show some fire in the belly. Let's hope we hear some of it when he returns to Cooper Union on Thursday for a speech as he tries to ratchet up support for financial reforms.

Blame for the financial crisis does not reside solely with the titans of Wall Street, of course; a lot of Americans took out mortgages or home equity loans they shouldn't have. Most of the regular folks have paid the price in terms of lost property, decimated savings and retirement accounts, and ruined credit scores. Given his own loss of political capital in the past year or so, President Obama ought to be especially sympathetic to their fury.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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