[…] 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. [++]