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Is Obama Committing Political Suicide? President Calls Obscene Wall St. Bonuses 'Part of the Free Market System'

Obama says he doesn't have a problem with bonuses at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. He's going to have a big problem at the polls in November.
 
 
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Update below.


After several weeks of strong showings in the media, President Barack Obama appears to have committed political suicide in an interview with Bloomberg focusing on bank bonuses. Just as bad, Obama's statements praising bailout barons and downplaying their bloated bonuses amount to outright economic insanity.


Here's what Obama had to say about the $9 million bonus Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein will be paid and the $17 million bonus JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon will receive:


"There are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I'm shocked by that as well....I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen," Obama said. "I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system."


The full Bloomberg interview will not run until Friday, so it's conceivable that these comments were taken out of context, but it's hard to read anything remotely positive into them. Obama either truly does not understand why people are upset about bank bonuses, or is willfully misinterpreting the outrage in an effort to harvest campaign cash from Wall Street.


I have no particular love for professional athletes, but let's give credit where credit is due: Baseball players did not wreck the global economy. Baseball players did not destroy seven million jobs and send the unemployment rate into double-digits. Baseball players did not con millions of people into taking out predatory subprime loans, and baseball players did not rob their fans with undisclosed overdraft fees. Baseball players did not come to taxpayers and demand $17.5 trillion to save their teams, and baseball players did not make their money in 2009 by speculating in financial casinos with taxpayer funds.


We do not have a free market in banking, we have a financial free-for-all in which ordinary citizens shoulder all of the risk while wealthy bank executives enjoy all of the rewards.


After the enormous uproar over AIG bonuses in 2009, it's hard to believe that Obama really doesn't know how angry people are about Wall Street pay. Both Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan spent heavily on Obama's 2008 presidential run, and Obama is almost certainly making the calculation that their money in 2010 will outweigh the voter unrest.


That's easily the worst political calculation Obama has made since entering office. One of the main reasons Obama and Congress were unable to pass financial reform in 2009 is their complete inability to communicate on the issue with voters. Financial reform is complicated, and not everybody understands the technocratic twists and turns. Most people probably don't know why we need, for instance, to trade credit default swaps on exchanges, and they probably don't know what legislative loopholes would sink that effort.


But everybody understands that bailout bonuses are totally obscene. Everybody grasps that U.S. taxpayers saved the biggest financial institutions from failure in 2008, and that continued rescue efforts have allowed banks to book the huge profits that support their bonuses. Of all the issues Obama could have caved on for political expediency, he picked the one that resonates most with voters.


Of course, it's also the issue that resonates most with bankers, and one that has serious economic implications. Compensation is the one aspect of the financial status quo that CEOs and traders are most desperate to maintain. And bloated bonuses were a key driver of the crisis itself. Banks swelled into too-big-to-fail proportions over the past decade in large part out of a quest for bigger paychecks. If a $1 trillion bank and a $1 billion bank have the same profit ratios and pay their executives the same percentage of profits, the CEO of the $1 trillion bank will take home a lot more money. He's working with a bigger pie, even if he gets the same percentage cut the small bank CEO gets.