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The Brittle Grip

The case of Wall Street is in many ways the hardest nut to crack. President Obama took a huge political hit for massive amounts of public money that went to bailing out the major banks. By most measures, along with his predecessor, he more or less saved US and global capitalism. And yet, when you talk to people in finance, this is entirely forgotten. What you most often hear about are two or three statements from the President that are still potently remembered.

Most often it's a late 2009 quote when he said "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street. They're still puzzled why it is that people are mad at the banks. Well, let's see. You guys are drawing down 10, 20 million dollar bonuses after America went through the worst economic year in decades and you guys caused the problem."

That's not something you'd expect folks in finance to like particularly. But it did come after about a year of the President getting grief from Wall Street while simultaneously taking the political hit for bailing the same folks out with tax payer dollars.

I've heard similar things talking to folks in the business community in DC. And what strikes me again and again is how much it comes back to a handful of statements and anecdotes, things people remember the President saying over the last three plus years.

Some of this shouldn't surprise us, I suppose. President Obama has pushed more regulation of business than his predecessor. (It's certainly a change after eight years of George W. Bush; and it's an eight years over which quite a lot has changed in the country.) He's supported -- though as yet not acted on -- his call to roll back the Bush tax cuts. But Bill Clinton did all of this and more. Clinton after all is the guy whose tax hikes the Bush tax cuts in large part repealed. By most objective standards the President is actually more solicitous of the business community than most or all Democratic presidents over the last half century.

So what's the explanation? Over recent weeks I've come to think that something else is in play: namely, the dramatic run up in wealth at the top of the income scale, not just over the last 35 years but particularly over the last 15 years. More or less since the beginning of the Clinton years. In a sense it's the other side of the 99% vs 1% meme that has been the most successful legacy of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

This is less an argument than a theory in progress. So I'd like your input. But I think the very wealthy and those who work in the most advanced and aggressive parts of finance are more defensive about their wealth than in the past -- at least in terms of the political expression of it. There's really no time in the last century in which you'd expect that a candidate running for a major political office who'd been responsible for shutting down a lot of factories wouldn't have that come up in a major way in a campaign. Simply no way. Agree or not, it would be entirely par for the course. And yet now it's treated as a possibly unexpected or unacceptable development.

That's weird.

At the same time, the most important voices in the media are much, much wealthier than in earlier eras. The very wealthy are their friends and peers. Concentrated wealth simply has a stronger hold over mass communications than in the past -- not necessarily in venal or corrupt terms but often simply by owning minds and mentalities. What all that amounts to is that people on Wall Street and the financial sector aren't accustomed to a lot of criticism.

All of it goes to explaining a basic conundrum -- President Obama is, when compared to Democrats over the last half century, objectively quite middle of the road. And yet the reaction from Wall Street and the halls of finance is one you'd think meant he was trying to bring capitalism to its knees. The President's policies and tenure in office simply don't explain the reaction. And I don't think political spin does either. We need to look deeper into the political economy of the nation at large to understand it.