Over on AlterNet this morning, the always readable Bill Greider asksObama Is Getting Punked By the Big Dogs of Banking;, Does He Have the Balls to Do What's Right? Me? I'd guess not. I think "thePrez" is all ears and big smile, but political cojones the size of a gnat's.
Being a public intellectual, Greider has to be a bit more circumspect, but here's the money quotes:
The bankers think they have the president cornered. His rescue plan cannot possibly succeed without much more money -- hundreds of billions more -- that Congress will be extremely reluctant to provide (Obama hasn't yet had the nerve to ask for it). The bankers' offer to return their welfare checks is a cute gesture, but a bluff. They know Obama's government is committed to save them, whatever it costs. As usual, the big dogs want to have it both ways -- take the public's money but promise nothing in return.He may not doubt the Good Intentions of the regime, or if he did, he would probably be constrained to disavow skepticism at this point. I am under no such constraints, and I am growing far more confirmed in my belief that Obama is a simple tool whose ambitions outstripped his ability, and who permitted himself to be swept into a position he's no fucking way qualified to fill.
Roughly speaking, that has been Obama's posture, too. He acts as though the old order must be restored with public money, but without forceful government direction. He can call their bluff if he has the courage -- shut down a couple of big banks, take control of the system -- and the public would cheer. During the campaign, Obama demonstrated he is a great teacher -- his political vision changed the country. But we do not yet know if he is a confident political leader willing to use his power against formidable adversaries in order to get his way. Every potential rival is now taking his measure. Weakness would doom him.
(E)verything Obama does now -- or fails to do -- becomes an inescapable precedent for the future, defining the true meaning of law and moral principle. The president's rationale on government-led torture sounds dangerously close to the line of defense invoked by Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. We were only following orders. CIA barbarians are invited to hide behind that excuse.
So in a sense are the bankers from Wall Street. They were merely doing what the financial markets wanted and what the government allowed. Rescuing these players now, while declining to force fundamental structural changes on the banking system, would essentially ratify the bankers' arrogant beliefs: "They are too important to fail. The government will never let it happen." Despite their destructive behavior, they will be allowed to remain in power and free to do it all again.
I do not doubt the president's good intentions, but if he is not vigilant, the "Obama precedent" could prove to be an ugly legacy. His name might someday be linked to wilful evasion of misdeeds and the degradation of law and moral principle. When great crimes are committed in the future by government or by powerful private interests, people in authority might decide to let them go by, citing the national interest and recalling how Barack Obama dealt with similar events.