Does the president get it yet on financial reform?
Or is his tougher stance toward the bankers part of a kabuki performed for the public while real reform is compromised away backstage?
The politics around the battle for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency are thick with intrigue and shifting positions.
A separate agency is a crucial aspect of any reform because the present regulators have done such a dismal job of protecting consumers’ interests.
We have every right to be suspicious of the president and the Democrats, based on their timidity in fighting for stronger regulation and holding accountable those responsible for the crisis.
The latest cause for doubts stems from the unsavory spectacle of Democrats and Republicans falling over themselves to reassure Wall Street that they are the bankers’ best bet to represent the interests of the financial industry.
Meanwhile, the president appears be jawboning the key Senate author of reform, Chris Dodd. A long-time recipient of Wall Street largesse, Dodd was facing a tough reelection campaign, based on some of his more unsavory dealings with Wall Street. In the midst of that campaign last November, he came out with a tough reform proposal, including an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
But as his campaign looked increasingly hopeless, Dodd decided to retire. Since then he’s been signaling that he wants to back off the independent consumer agency. President Obama met with Dodd last month and insisted that the independent agency is “non-negotiable.”
President Obama has his own changing political calculations. He originally supported a milder version of bank reform passed by the House. After the Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat several weeks ago, the president all of a sudden decided to haul out his lone financial adviser who has advocated breaking up big banks, former Fed chief Paul Volcker. (Previously Obama had been ignoring him, letting a cast of Wall Street insiders run his handling of the banking crisis.)
Obama, with Volcker by his side, voiced support for breaking up the largest big banks as well as placing some new limits for some of the banks’ riskier activities.
Earlier this week at a Senate hearing, Dodd aimed unusual criticism at the president, questioning the timing of his announcement, labeling the president’s embrace of Volcker’s ideas “transparently political.”
Dodd didn’t stop there: he suggested that the president’s proposals to get tough on the big banks threatened the process of crafting a reform proposal that would get bipartisan support.
Key Republicans have already indicated what that would mean – no independent consumer financial protection agency, for one thing.
The Democrats are caught: The bankers who fund their campaigns are demanding watered-down reform that will ensure business as usual. Angry voters are demanding robust regulation and accountability.
The president has to demonstrate that his embrace of Volcker’s ideas isn’t just a gimmick. He’s got to flesh his proposals out with details and fight for them in public and not compromise them away in the back rooms.