Our "jackass" moment

September 21, 2009

One thing we can all agree on about our president: He chooses his words v-e-r-y carefully.

So I wondered about his choice of language and timing when, on the same day he traveled to Wall Street to deliver the bankers a gentle scolding, he got caught on videotape labeling the rapper Kanye West a “jackass” for his behavior on a televised awards show.

You don’t mess with the president: Kanye West got himself right onto Jay Leno’s couch to perform an apology.

What if the president had been as blunt with the bankers whose piggish appetites plunged us into this crisis?

Maybe they wouldn’t have fidgeted on their Blackberries through the president’s speech and complained about Obama’s overreach in his attempt to bring new regulation to Wall Street.

One could say it’s easier to deliver a tongue-lashing to a rapper who probably didn’t give you and your party millions in campaign contributions.

But I bet Taylor Swift, the singer who was the target of Kanye West’s unseemly outburst, appreciated the president speaking up without artifice, describing West’s behavior for exactly what it was.

We’re still waiting for President Obama to tell it like it is, to speak strongly enough so the bankers get the message that this time he really means to fight for the reform he promised.

Because unlike Kanye West, the folks in the finance sector have yet to get it.

We’ve heard the president and his advisers insist that the financial outrages of the past will not be tolerated, and then they go right on tolerating them. Like the outrageous bonuses for AIG and Merrill Lynch, or Goldman Sach’s expert gaming of the system.

The surviving financial institutions have ridden to new heights of profit and risk, lavish pay and outlandish behavior, all the while deploying their fearsome lobbying machines to fight reform and regulation.

Next to these people, rapper Kanye West looks like a choir boy.

Take for instance the senior Wells Fargo vice-president in charge of the bank’s foreclosed properties who partied down in a fabulous $12 million beachside Malibu estate. The former owners, investors in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, were forced to surrender it to Wells Fargo to satisfy their debts.  Local realtors couldn’t figure out why the bank wasn’t interested in showing the house to prospective buyers.

Neighbors called it out after they noticed guests arriving by yacht for one of executive Cheronda Guyton’s extravagant bashes.

It might have been better for Guyton to spend more time in the office: According to a recent report, Wells Fargo’s efforts to help modify troubled mortgages lags behind the industry’s average.

Guyton was fired. The bank issued this terse understatement: “A single team member was responsible for violating our company policies. As a result, employment of this individual has been terminated.”

But such antics are not about one single jackass. They stem from the entire clueless culture that got us into this mess.

We need to hear from President Obama about that banker’s beachside frolic. We need to hear from him about the Wall Street culture. We need to hear from him about his plan to drive a spike through its gluttonous heart so it doesn’t come back.

Of course we need a lot more than for the president to tell it like it is.

But it would be a good start if he talked about the real taboo – the corrosive power of money in politics; and the stranglehold the financial sector has had on the government.

President Obama has shown, with his race speech for example, that we all gain when he goes against conventional wisdom and tackles what nobody wants to talk about.

And if he doesn’t, we know what happens. The jackasses win.