President Obama met today with the captains of Wall Street - the CEOs of firms like Morgan Stanley, Chase, Bank of America, whose names have become kitchen table curse words for millions of Americans facing foreclosures, layoffs and an uncertain future.
The purpose, administration officials said, was to get these folks to be more cooperative in addressing the outcry from Main Street.
Following the meeting, the president said Americans had given "extraordinary assistance" to bail out the banks, and now "we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy."
Outrage is mounting as top banks and financial firms have returned to handing out lavish salary raises and bonuses, even though good times show little sign of a comeback for most Americans. And the White House is feeling the heat.
In a Bloomberg poll taken early this month, 50 percent disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy, versus 45 percent who approved. Respondents overwhelmingly picked "persistent high unemployment" as the biggest threat to the U.S. economy over the next few years, outranking such issues as budget deficit, trade barriers and higher taxes.
On Sunday night, Obama struck a populist note on the CBS "60 Minutes" show, saying, "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street."
In today's meeting, officials said, Obama pushed the nation's top financial institutions to start freeing up loans to small businesses and homeowners to help spur the "real" economy.
Top Obama adviser David Axelrod said this morning that the president's message would be, ''You guys were part of the problem. You helped create an economic crisis ... but now you have to be part of the solution and you have to accelerate lending to credible small businesses.''
The American people ''are not going to tolerate a situation where the bankers have a party, the taxpayers pick up the tab," Axelrod said on ABC's ''Good Morning America.'' They (the bankers) have a stake in seeing this economy grow as well and the president is going to make that case.''
Obama also wants the financial CEOs to stop fighting legislation to protect consumers from mortgage and credit card ripoffs.
The White House is backing a bill passed by the House of Representatives Dec. 11 that the AFL-CIO calls "the most sweeping overhaul of the financial industry in more than 70 years." Naturally, the measure is being fiercely battled by the same "fat cat bankers" that went to the White House today.
The bill, introduced and spearheaded by Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, is named the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, HR 4173. It would create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to enforce consumer protection and civil rights laws. It also would increase the transparency and regulation of Wall Street investment schemes like the ones that created the housing bubble and foreclosure crisis.
The bill passed the House by a fairly close vote, 223-202, with 27 Democrats voting with the Republicans to oppose these modest curbs on Wall Street. It now goes to the Senate, where big banking and financial capital has an ever bigger influence, and the Democratic majority is tenuous.
The AFL-CIO wants the bill to be strengthened further. The labor federation says the Federal Reserve Board, which is in charge of the nation's banking system, needs to be reformed to reduce the power of the big banks and make banking serve the people's needs.
At a rally outside the American Bankers Association meeting in Chicago this fall, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the bank executives:
"Your job is to be stewards of our savings, to put and keep working families in homes, to lend the money companies need to create jobs. And you have failed. You've turned the American economy into your own private casino, gambling away our financial future with our money, and driving us to the brink of a second Great Depression - then sticking out your hand for taxpayers to bail you out."
He reminded the bankers, "You work for us - not the other way around."