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Obama’s Original Sin

Obama can win reelection without carrying 10021 or Greenwich in any case. The bigger political problem is that a far larger share of the American electorate views him as a tool of the very fat-cat elite that despises him. Given Obama’s humble background, his history as a mostly liberal Democrat, and his famous résumé as a community organizer, this would also seem a reach. But the president has no one to blame but himself for the caricature. While he has never lusted after money—he’d rather get his hands on the latest novel by Morrison or Franzen—he is an elitist of a certain sort. For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys.

He stocked his administration with brilliant personnel linked to the bubble: liberals, and especially Ivy League liberals. Nearly three years on, they have taken a toll both on the White House’s image and its policies. Obama arrives at his reelection campaign not merely with a weak performance on Wall Street crime enforcement and reform but also with a scattershot record (at best) of focusing on the main concern of Main Street: joblessness. One is a consequence of the other. His failure to push back against the financial sector, sparing it any responsibility for the economy it tanked, empowered it to roll over his agenda with its own. He has come across as favoring the financial elite over the stranded middle class even if, in his heart of hearts, he does not.

The economic narrative of his presidency has been bookended by well-heeled appointees with tax issues. First came his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, introduced to the public as a repeat tax delinquent, just too important to attend to the fine print that troubles mere mortals. This January, when Obama at long last created a jobs council, he appointed Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of G.E., to lead it. The Times did the due diligence the White House didn’t and found that G.E. paid essentially no U.S. taxes on $14.2 billion of profit, even as it has shed one fifth of its American workforce since 2002. Were Immelt creating more new American jobs in his new administration role than he has at G.E., perhaps we could understand why Obama kept him on. But his only visible achievement has been to co-write a “progress report” on his efforts for The Wall Street Journal op-ed page in June. It read like a patronizing corporate annual report aimed at small shareholders—a boilerplate wish list of bullet points followed by a promise that “a more strategic view” would be unveiled by September, a full nine months after he took his assignment. Maybe he and the president can hash it out this summer on the Vineyard.

A recent poll put Obama in a dead heat with Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney! The savior of the working stiff!

The roots of Obama’s capture by the corporate axis of influence inexorably trace back to his own personal Zelig, the former Clinton Treasury secretary and Harvard Corporation stalwart Robert Rubin. In The Audacity of Hope, published in late 2006, Obama called Rubin, then busily cheerleading the excessive risk at Citigroup, “one of the more thoughtful and unassuming people I know.” Two years later, when Citi cratered and threatened to take the economy with it, Rubin demonstrated his unassuming thoughtfulness by denying that he had anything to do with the toxic investments that cost taxpayers a $45 billion bailout and 52,000 Citi employees their jobs.

In his unseemly revolving-door career, Rubin not once but twice sped the Citi apocalypse—first in government, where he and his eventual successor as Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, championed the deregulatory policies that facilitated the consolidation of too-big-to-fail banks, and then in his $15 million-a-year role as Citi’s “guru,” where, by his own later account, he had no idea what was in the worthless paper the bank peddled to greedy dupes. You’d think Obama would have dumped him faster than he did the Reverend Wright, but that’s misreading him. Obama is preternaturally secure on thorny matters of race—as his magnificent speech on the subject made clear—and could distance himself from his preacher with no ambivalence. It’s “unassuming” braininess that’s his blind spot.

And so a parade of Rubin acolytes entered the White House, led by Geithner, a nearly lifelong civil servant so identified with the financial Establishment that even Mayor Bloomberg mistakenly introduced him as a Goldman alumnus at a public event in New York last year. It’s Geithner’s influence on policy, however, not his persona, that proved fateful. Not until March 2010 did the White House get its first explicit, modest jobs bill through Congress.


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