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The Buck Stops With Obama on Tepid Financial Reform

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What are we talking about when we talk about Timothy F. Geithner's new book? President Obama.

The former Treasury secretary's new book, "Stress Test," has stirred up the old debates and anger: How the bailout was overly generous to the banks and bankers; how the failures on housing were inexcusable; how the financial regulatory reform was inadequate.

These were Mr. Geithner's failures, but they were more deeply Mr. Obama's. The flaws we thought we were seeing during Mr. Geithner's tenure turn out to have replicated themselves in other Obama departments. And they have persisted after Mr. Geithner left. Why, it's almost as if the Treasury secretary wasn't the one making decisions and setting the tone after all.

President Obama's appointees, Eric H. Holder Jr. at the Department of Justice and Mary L. Schapiro at the Securities and Exchange Commission, oversaw the inadequate enforcement response to the crisis. Mr. Obama reappointed Ben S. Bernanke, who focused on monetary policy and didn't push for more aggressive regulatory and financial reform. Mr. Geithner didn't run those shops.

And Geithner-like characters keep popping up, while appointees who are unlike the president get ousted. At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the outspoken Sheila Bair was replaced with the low-profile Martin J. Gruenberg. Gary S. Gensler, the tough chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, didn't get nominated to a second term. In his place, we got a Treasury official whose cipher of a record was almost treated as a virtue by the Obama administration. The new head of the S.E.C., Mary Jo White, has been disappointing on regulatory questions.

Favored Obama appointees seem to share certain qualities: They work within the system, they don't like to ruffle feathers or pick fights, and they keep their profiles low. They are technocrats.

There's an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" quality to these Obamaites. Mr. Geithner had a saying: "No jerks, no peacocks, no whiners." That echoes the president's ethos, encapsulated by "No drama Obama." The result is a congenital suspicion of vision, ambition, sweeping reform and change.

Reform health care? Take the right-of-center Heritage plan, hopeful of bipartisan support that never materializes. Reform the financial markets? Don't do anything that someone could deride as simplistic and unsophisticated.

It's an elevation of consensus, rather than what's right, as a mode of governance. And there are moments that call for vision and ambition.

Perhaps it's understandable that the administration had to make messy compromises during the panic. But as the crisis subsided, it became clear that the financial system had desperate need for an overhaul as broad and sweeping as the one that followed the Great Depression. It didn't happen.

The biggest disappointments were failing to be more aggressive on housing policy and failing to hold wrongdoers accountable in the aftermath of the crisis. But the Obama administration's failure on financial regulatory reform may be the most emblematic of the president's halting leadership qualities.

As Mr. Geithner depicts it in his book, the Obama administration felt it had to push reform quickly to strike while passions were high. Yet one recurring theme in the book is how deeply the Obama crowd desires to be realistic.

Mr. Geithner says he wanted to do what was right: consolidate the banking and securities regulators and plug holes in the system. But the president's advisers seem to compete to see who can bow more quickly to what they perceive as the political realities of the moment.

What Mr. Geithner instead demonstrates in his book is that the White House misread the politics to focus on killing bold action. For example, Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, facing attacks from a primary challenger that she was too friendly to the banks, proposed strict restrictions on tough derivatives. Mr. Geithner and the Obama administration scoffed at her plan, without recognizing that the politics were friendly to a more aggressive tack than they thought possible.

Another Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was holding out on financial reform from the left. Instead of seeking to placate him with progressive proposals, the White House and the congressional leaders scrambled to secure the vote of Scott Brown, the suddenly elected Republican from Massachusetts. Mr. Brown could have scuttled financial reform, but instead he was eager to embrace it, a sign of where the politics of the moment really were.

Presidents aren't all powerful and cannot change things by force of will. But Mr. Obama could have set an initial reform agenda with sweep. Some advocated it in his administration. President Obama had immense political capital in 2009 and majorities in Congress. The inevitably compromised legislative process would have chipped away at a larger mountain. Instead it reduced a hill to a hillock.

Mr. Geithner's account is full of inadvertent admissions of how skeptical of the project he was all along.

Consider the Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks that take taxpayer-insured deposits from speculating for their own account. Mr. Geithner was against it initially. President Obama pushed it. Mr. Geithner writes that he accepted it only in a "purely legislative calculation" that it would help the overall Dodd-Frank reform package pass. (Never mind that this admission comes three pages after Mr. Geithner's self-praise of "the impressive extent to which policy trumped politics in the Obama administration.")

Mr. Geithner's stated objection to the Volcker Rule is that proprietary trading didn't cause the crisis. That's a debatable proposition at best, but set that aside. The idea that financial reform shouldn't fix obvious problems in the markets simply because they didn't play a central role in this particular crisis demonstrates almost willful blindness.

So where did Mr. Obama stand on the Volcker Rule? The president revealed his position as he let the rule-making process, post passage and post Geithner, drag on.

Give credit to Mr. Geithner: He was consistent in his hostility to significant action. In his book, Mr. Geithner reveals that he undercut the support of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, for a financial transaction tax, knowing that such a global tax, which is backed by respected economists and is politically popular, had "no chance without our support." Even today, he doesn't believe we can — or should — solve "too big to fail," calling it a "Moby-Dick" policy.

But if he ever steered a path too middling for Mr. Obama, the president never made it clear.

The moment has passed. There won't be a remaking of our financial system or regulatory architecture. But Mr. Obama could evince some interest in the ongoing project. He could appoint a real voice of change to the board of the Federal Reserve, as a way to signal that the Fed can never let its regulatory mandate become such a poor relation to monetary policy.

President Obama could consider financial regulatory reform a signature achievement and work to consolidate it. But he doesn't appear to. It's not surprising his appointees don't either.

Jesse Eisinger

About The Trade

In this column, co-published with New York Times' DealBook, I monitor the financial markets to hold companies, executives and government officials accountable for their actions. Tips? Praise? Contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)