Obama trash-talks Wall Street

The president calls banker greed "shameful." But where's the big stick to back up his tough talk?

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 29, 2009 9:48PM (EST)

President Obama had some strong words for Wall Street bankers during a press conference on Thursday:

...I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses -- the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004 -- at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don't provide help that the entire system could come down on top of our heads -- that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.

It's great, as far it goes, to see our President chastising Wall Street bankers for their greed. But shameful behavior requires more than chastisement, and I'm not sure there is any meaningful followup in the remainder of his remarks. Italics mine.

And part of what we're going to need is for folks on Wall Street who are asking for help to show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility. The American people understand that we've got a big hole that we've got to dig ourselves out of -- but they don't like the idea that people are digging a bigger hole even as they're being asked to fill it up.

And so we're going to be having conversations as this process moves forward directly with these folks on Wall Street to underscore that they have to start acting in a more responsible fashion if we are to together get this economy rolling again. There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses -- now is not that time. And that's a message that I intend to send directly to them, I expect Secretary Geithner to send to them -- and Secretary Geithner already had to pull back one institution that had gone forward with a multimillion dollar jet plane purchase at the same time as they're receiving TARP money. We shouldn't have to do that because they should know better. And we will continue to send that message loud and clear.

Come on -- we can do better than that. We could stipulate that banks receiving federal subsidies be forbidden from giving out any bonuses at all. We could confiscate their existing corporate jets and sell them off, and tell all their executives its time to fly coach. Best of all, we could inform all the high-flying bonus babies that they are straightaway being moved directly into a higher tax bracket.

It's one thing for Obama to tell parents that sometimes, they should just turn the TV off and their children will benefit. The parents might even listen. But Wall Street? "Sending" a "message" that it's time for the folks at Citigroup or Merrill Lynch to act more responsibly isn't going to achieve diddly-squat unless that "message" is beaten into their heads with a big stick.

Although, then again, with all that being said, our President did just call Wall Street's behavior "shameful." I guess that's a start.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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