Barack Obama, Wall Street Co-Conspirator?

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This article first appeared on Salon.com.

President Barack Obama, with current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, right, announces that he will name current Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough,left, as his next chief of staff, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama, with current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, right, announces that he will name current Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough,left, as his next chief of staff, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

After all the big news last week about Barack Obama’s all-too-close relationship with Wall Street, my dad and I got into a back and forth email exchange about whether to feel optimistic about the president’s second term and about how to explain the administration’s refusal to prosecute a single banker connected to the financial meltdown.

Though my father is no Obama apologist by any stretch, his politics lean liberal, and so in response to watching last week’s PBS Frontline report, he asked me questions that were similar to those I’ve heard before. He wants to believe Obama really hopes to “hold Wall Street accountable,” as the president claimed, and so my dad wonders whether the president’s refusal to do so can be explained by something other than corruption. He wants to believe — or at least to explore the possibility — that the depressing situation isn’t simply about Obama raking in massive Wall Street contributions and then paying back his donors with immunity from prosecution — immunity, mind you, that the rest of us are not afforded.

It goes without saying, of course, that when this line of discussion is initiated by liberals about Obama, there is a serious double standard at work. Simply put, if a Republican was president right now and hadn’t prosecuted a single banker and had appointed a scandal-plagued Wall Street defense lawyer to head the SEC, liberals would be — rightly — screaming bloody murder on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs and on cable television. They wouldn’t be looking for ways to excuse that president from personal culpability, nor would they be looking to claim the situation exemplified anything other than the kind of ugly-but-legal bribery that dominates American politics.

No doubt, that depressing double standard illustrates a deeply problematic red-versus-blue-ification of our society — one that blinds Americans to their responsibilities as citizens. However, let’s set that whole crisis aside for a moment and go to the substance of my dad’s question. Regardless of why he and others may be asking them, the queries are important: How can we explain Obama’s servile posture toward and genuflecting reverence of Wall Street? Is it possible Obama is not at fault?

To my mind, the only school of thought that could even slightly reduce the amount of blame Obama deserves is the one so harrowingly evinced in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film, Nixon. In that movie’s scene at the Lincoln Memorial, the sullen president tries to have a rational discussion with anti-war protestors about his escalation of the Vietnam War. Nixon claims to sympathize with those who want to end the conflict. Yet, when he is asked why he doesn’t just use his presidential authority to stop the war, Nixon has no answer, leading the students to conclude that the president actually doesn’t have the power to stop the war, because the Military-Industrial Complex is just too big for even a commander in chief to assert his will.

In theory, you could try to make the same argument about Obama and Wall Street. You could argue that through campaign contributions to Congress, through revolving-door promises of future riches to current regulators and through an army of lawyers who tilt the judicial system in its favor, Wall Street has so much political power that a president simply has no ability to change things, even if he wanted to.

The problem with this argument, though, is that it doesn’t make sense when it comes to actions over which the executive has complete control.

A president, for instance, has the unilateral power to at least propose tough Wall Street regulations, even if Congress is too corrupt to pass them. A president, likewise, has the unilateral power to nominate genuinely independent regulators, even if a Wall Street-dominated Senate might try to halt such a nomination. In short, a president has the unilateral power to at least force a serious fight over these issues — and Obama has refused to even do that. Instead, he championed bailouts and a Wall Street “reform” package that let the banks off the hook, and he has appointed Wall Street pals like Lanny Breuer at Justice and Mary Jo White at the Securities Exchange Commission.

One hackneyed retort to all that is to cast Obama as a “realist” who doesn’t want to pick fights with Congress that he knows he cannot win. That logic is predicated on the absurd notion that a president cannot use the bully pulpit to change public opinion — that is, to actually lead and, ultimately, to win. But even if you accept such apologism, it still cannot account for how the president has used — or, really, not used — his unilateral power to prosecute.

Obama is a president who asserts the right to execute American citizens without judge, jury or trial. That means that in his role overseeing the Department of Justice, he (like his predecessors) clearly retains the lesser-but-still-serious power to tell his political appointees at the Justice Department to prioritize certain kinds of prosecutions. In fact, this is exactly what he just did when this month he issued an executive order instructing the Department of Justice to “maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.”

He could just as easily have a similar executive order after winning a presidential election on promises to “hold Wall Street accountable.” But he chose not to back then, just as he chooses not to today.

To know that is an active choice rather than a decision forced on Obama, recall the prosecutorial record of a New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. He had to run for office in the very state that domiciles Wall Street and he held an office with far less power than President of the United States. And yet, he chose to use his prosecutorial power in a way that made him the “Sheriff of Wall Street.”

Considering all of this, and further considering, again, just how much money Obama has taken from the financial industry, it is hard to believe anyone can see Obama as anything but an active, proud, engaged co-conspirator with Wall Street.

Of course, that many can and do see him as something else is proof that Obama’s cynical political formula works — and works well. As I wrote in my column last week, he seems to know that in a short-attention-span country where the electorate focuses more on TV packaged rhetoric than on reality, he can give tough-sounding speeches and be widely credited as “tough on Wall Street” — even if he isn’t doing anything to stop financial crime.

He also seems to know that liberals, in particular, want to believe “their guy” is trying to do the right thing, even when he’s trying to do the opposite. He knows that for many liberals, it is simply too painful to admit “their guy” is often as duplicitous and destructive as their sworn GOP enemies — and so he knows he probably will face no real opposition movement among the voters who put him in office.

In this, he is not some weakling getting bowled over by more powerful forces. Like I told my dad, he is one of the strongest presidents in recent history, deftly leveraging the most powerful office in the world to get exactly what he and his Wall Street donors want. Those donors didn’t give him millions as an altruistic gift — they gave him millions as an investment. And he is paying back that investment every single day the bankers who cratered the economy are not prosecuted.


David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com
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  • Strawman411

    Bullseye, Mr. Sirota. I believe only starry-eyed partisans will disagree, whinging about (as so many did during last fall’s campaign) the Lesser of Two Evils factor.

    A pox on the houses of both wings of the Corporacratic Party.

  • SafetyFirstMaybe

    I believe this is the same type of thing that lead to Reagan being very popular even after all the bad things his government did and his party being at the lowest ratings ever when he left office. People see the President as not being the decision maker and when they realize this (whether its a banker saying “Hurry Up” to President Reagan during a public speech or Bankers flanking Obama when making a speech about responsibility.). It is a sad thing to see and people don’t want to believe what they see with their own eyes. Very depressing to watch.

  • David Kerlick

    I agree completely. Bought and paid for by big money. They owned both candidates, and all of Congre$$.

  • Georgia Opheim

    Great discussion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1121882754 Anne Ryan

    This explains to some degree why so many of my friends seem deaf, dumb and blind. At least I can tell my grandchildren I did not vote for him the second time. But good grief, the man is also a war criminal.

  • Jerry Thomas

    The problem is our only alternative has been a Republican!

  • Anonymous

    I just don’t think Obama has the force of character to do the difficult things that need to be done. He is always feeling his way between the powerful and the people, never fully taking either side, crafting speeches with tidbits of populism but always calculating a median point between good and evil. Not inspiring, nor effective. On the other hand, we liberals need to take a look in the mirror. Have we gotten out there in force and stayed visible and stayed loud and presented ourselves in large numbers, persistently? No. We have retreated into a “both parties are the same” cynicism. We’ll never make him do the right thing with that approach.

  • Anonymous

    Well, actually, there HAVE been other candidates — for me, notably the Greens’ Jill Stein who offered real hope & solutions with her “Green New Deal.” However, as always, for decades, nay generations, one of the FEW BIPARTISAN COLLABORATIONS between Republicans and Democrats has been keeping new/other voices and parties OUT of the debates and OUT of the election, and Not pushing for fair electoral reform and practices. The corporate duopoly is, in fact, a force working hard for THEIR piece of the pie, and against democracy.

  • Eliazbeth Stanhope

    Here’s my letter to the President–
    Dear Mr. President,

    I am one of the millions and millions Americans who lost a lot of money when the market crashed in 2008.

    I am also a person who believed you would do more than you have done to prosecute the villains who blew up the economy. Now I am convinced by the endless bad choices you have made to sit WITH Wall Street, essentially to PROTECT thieves and villains who stole from the world that you are one of them, sir.

    HAMP and HARP, in my view, and I represent millions of people with a very long attention span, was a LIE and a SCAM, and all at your behest, essentially.

    The people you have put in charge of policing WALL STREET are the same people who have represented the interests they should prosecute. It’s shameful what I have seen unfold since 2008. I just wish you felt the sting of losing mortgage value to the extent I did. I wish you could feel what it is like to have a husband who lost his job due to the gambling of WALL STREET. And then to vote for you this time as the lesser of two evils leaves me despairing as I watch the time tick tick tick by and see zero done for the people of this country who aren’t in your “club”–the 100million dollar Harvard grad club. It’s truly a shame you have essentially done nearly zero to help the people who were wiped out.

    And now, you are aware, we are all just waiting to see what your inactivity will bring in the way of ANOTHER CRASH on your watch due to really no reform efforts.

    People here in Sacramento are betting about which corporate boards you will sit on in the next chapter of your capture. You are no better than the people you protect. It’s a sad day in America when crooks get everything they want with the President’s blessing.

  • Philly mom

    Recently watched “Inside Job” and am furious that NO ONE has been punished for the massive collusion that brought us to the brink. In fact, most of the Wall St. folks were given huge bonuses or rewarded in other ways, on the backs of American taxpayers. Why won’t the Justice Dept. go after them?! Is our government so totally bought and paid for? Shame on Obama, Holder, the SEC, Moody’s, Standard and Poors, and the Senate committee that should have oversight.

  • http://twitter.com/donilo252525 doug lowe

    The truth is so simple, isn’t it – ” Like I told my dad, he is one of the strongest presidents in recent history, deftly leveraging the most powerful office in the world to get exactly what he and his Wall Street donors want. Those donors didn’t give him millions as an altruistic gift — they gave him millions as an investment. And he is paying back that investment every single day the bankers who cratered the economy are not prosecuted.”

    Link this simple, true statement with Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, who called Obama for who he is – “The more effective evil,” and it pretty well sums him up. He is clever – even brilliant, but never mistake those two descriptions for WISDOM, or for a Caring Human Being (outside of caring for himself).

    Considering the lasting legacy he’s leaving his family, it’s hard even to say that he genuinely cares for them. What father or husband would want to be known to his children or wife as someone who demanded the right to kill other human beings – simply on the up or down position of his thumb? There are lists of Emperors throughout history who have claimed and/or been granted that “right.” Another person who claimed it for himself was Ted Bundy. He is clever, even brilliant, but we’d never call him wise or caring.

    Well, well written David Sirota!

  • http://www.facebook.com/deleriously.happy Jeannine Seymour

    Mr. Sirota, you have touched upon almost every excuse my world-weary, battle-scarred, ’60s activist heart has summoned to explain the man’s actions vis-a-vis his rhetoric. I thank you for the subtleties and depths of your probing conversation with your father. Still, there is one possibility not voiced here–one so shadowy and vile that it promises to bury all hope for a happy ending if exposed–the possibility that he’s been shown the truth of both Kennedy assassinations, and threatened with that outcome for himself and his family if he steps out of line. It brings tears to my eyes seeing that thought in type, but it must be faced. It must. No one who has burdened himself or herself with the declassified truths of that cesspool that sits beneath Washington and the Pentagon can ignore that possibility for explaining Obama’s seeming betrayals. I know this because the angelic consciousness we heard in that DNC keynote–the effervescent, nearly messianic Gabriel trumpet call to unity that came pouring from his voice and eyes that night, the one that leaped through the TV and lifted us to our feet–that was no lie. That’s who we voted for, and cried for, and carried to victory in Chicago. The man who took the oath of office in January 2009 was not the same man. It has been one of the most colossal bait-and-switch cons in human history, and has caused a polar shift in the collective psyche that rivals every dark vision of Orwell. I speak for many who held out hope for this inscrutable heartbreaker in the White House, long after it should have been withdrawn. Pull aside all the savior projections we foisted upon him and render the man to a single spark of consciousness that is his and his alone, and we still won’t know the whole truth of what happened to him. We cannot. All we can do is detach from him and take a big step backward, all of us together, look at what’s happened to this nation, assess the damage to our planet honestly, and get to work. We are in deep environmental and social crisis. It’s happened on our watch, and it will take all of us to put it back together right … from scratch, if need be. Starting now, let’s break the trauma trance by whatever peaceful means necessary (no more child slayings, please!) and face the facts of our dilemmas so that solutions can begin to rise. As they always will. We are survivors.

  • MLK and FDR are needed NOW!

    Jeanine, you have a beautiful mind and heart, and I agree with so much of what you wrote. I just want to say, though, that Obama is not a liberal and never has been. The two books about Obama by Paul Street (among others) document that long before Obama became president (and was probably “warned” by the true rulers), that Obama has held neo-liberal domestic views and neo-con foreign policy views. He may misuse liberal-progressive-populist “pretty words” to inspire voters and obtain votes, but his actions consistently prove that Obama is first and foremost an active agent for the capitalist, imperialist, militarist U.S. Global Empire — and NOT a “champion of the needs and hopes of the common people.”

    If Obama was a true champion of the people, he would have fought his hardest to create 20 million JOBS via federal spending (like FDR did); he would have fought his hardest for Single Payer or the Public Option; and he would NOT have repeatedly offered to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — which 75%+ of the American people strongly DON’T want him to do! I have read that Obama “courted” the ruling class in his ambition to become president by speaking to the Federalist Society in 2006 (I recall) in which he stated his belief that SS, M & M should be CUT.

    So, Obama was (and is) an ambitious opportunist, eager to serve the capitalists and imperialists at the tragic expense of the common people in the U.S. (and of the world and of the planet itself). Even before he became president and was warned.

  • Mike Peterson

    Jeanine you do, in fact, have a beautiful heart! I believe you should read, “J.F.K. And the Unspeakable,” if you haven’t already. James Douglass has assembled a compelling history of the assassination and the reasons behind it; and what you say fits it to a T. It’s probably an initial briefing and reminder of every sitting President since that time, sad to say. And I’ve not been a conspiracy theorist until reading that book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Varian-Daly/672156773 Michael Varian Daly

    TO DEFEAT THE CORPORATE STATE TAKES PATIENCE AND GUILE

    Do not expect to defeat The Corporate State at the ballot box. Big Money can power its way through almost any election cycle. That is not however a call for Revolution. Big Money can power its way through those as well and rather unpleasantly.

    Instead it must always be remembered that by its conscienceless and rapacious nature, the thing sows the seeds of its own destruction. Therefore what is required is both the ability to survive its collapse *and* to have another functional structure extent to replace it. Anything else is empty rhetoric.

  • http://www.facebook.com/simon.west.180625 Simon West

    “Barack Obama, Wall Street Co-Conspirator?”

    Yes, indeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Brooke/100002935751410 Paul Brooke

    Maybe Bill Hicks was right. The people who run the country showed Obama the Zapruder film .

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tom-Langley/1804916946 Tom Langley

    Spot on David.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.bishton.35 Mark Bishton

    There is one other possibility that gets Obama off the hook as a scoundrel just leaving him a coward. Maybe he is doing the bidding of wall street & the military industrial complex because he is afraid for his family’s life & knows that even the highest office in the land can’t protect them.
    Just a thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.bishton.35 Mark Bishton

    It is more than “not being a liberal” to appoint the kind of foxes to guard the chicken coops that Obama has. Not since Reagan appointed his team, notably James Watt as Interior Secretary has there been such a betrayal of this country.
    I thought that running a movie star in 1980 on the republican ticket was as savvy as it was cynical, but running a Harvard educated man of color who speaks like a preacher on the democrat ticket has dwarfed that old scam.
    The question is not “is the fix in”. The question is when was this game fixed?

  • Anonymous

    We need a campaign to publicly challenge Obama to empanel a federal grand jury to take over the criminal investigations of Wall Street wrongdoing leading up to the 2008 meltdown and continuing. Or an independent special prosecutor. Only publicly shaming Obama will get him to act. How do we organize this?

  • Anonymous

    A more eloquent War Criminal and Chief brought to you by banksters. Tell me if Holder would treat you similar to HSBC if you were laundering billions for international drug cartels? To big to jail? You bet! Hope and change is beyond bought and paid for Demopublicans.

  • upperatmos

    In other words, in plain words, Barack Obama is despicably corrupt and feckless. Is he also so obtuse as to not realize what his legacy will amount to? Does he think the public will be forever fooled by his con game? And if that is indeed the case, is he really that intelligent after all?

  • Anonymous

    There is no part of capitalism that involves a central bank, massive wealth redistribution, political pull, government subsidies, too big to fail, too big to prosecute, all of those are characteristics of socialism and fascism.

  • http://charlesfrith.blogspot.com/ Charles Frith

    The red/blue left/right GOP/DEM Tory/Labour Hegelian dialectic is there for all to see. The double standards of both sides is why they deserve each other. So dim witted and false.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AKYNLY6RWVZNRH2QIW26EBG6GE Mark Longhi

    Disgusting!

  • john doe

    Break a deal with certain entities and you pay your life, or your families. Even if he was not a willing traitor theres not much he can do. The only decent thing about him is not following Isreal into an Iranian war. He is an economic fool and probably a crook, but not a mass murderer.

  • Joy

    There’s another, perhaps even more sinister point of view on this which few dare “stomach” – what if that “angelic consciousness/Messianic Gabriel” that was served up to you courtesy of a complicit main street media was simply a “brand”, as has been suggested elsewhere by people more eloquently than I can be. His initial presidential campaign did not win some “brand of the year” award for nothing, it was extremely well deserved.
    I believe the truth is that ALL you see on TV, and particularly DNC or RNC (ask any Ron Paul delegate who went to Florida about the Gestapo-like shenanigans of the Romney campaign) broadcasts are simply mass media events as Hitler orchestrated them for a populace unable to grasp what he really stood for.

    Events to manipulate your perception and make you believe that you really have a vote in this world where, as Chris Hedges says so truthfully, you have NO chance to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. Most people are so taken by the media blitz messages, they honestly believe they have a political role to play – the reality is, it is all pre-determined and you are being brainwashed into thinking it all authentic and populist/participatory. I was sucked in by Obushma at first, too, but somewhere between his acceptance speech and first inagauration, I woke up to the fact that what i was being made a supportive part of is just slightly better staged “professional wrestling”. God help us all.

  • DJB

    This is why there is no political or economic future for our country. Republican vs Democrat it does not matter anymore. The Banksters and the Wall Streeters own the system. The only way out of this mess is a financial collapse which the Banksters and the Wall Streeters don’t want to happen because then they lose their power. Nobody working then money and stocks are worthless. Bring it on.
    Does it really matter who you vote for anymore? They are all on the take. Campaign contributions is just another form of graft. This is worse than Tammany Hall with Boss Tweed.

  • Guest

    If only; that your words could be read by all U.S. Americans. Thank you!