Taking On Wall Street: Obama, You're No FDR

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 2:39 PM EDT

President Obama gave a speech in New York's Cooper Union about the importance of reforming the financial system. He was no pushover, but there was something disappointing about the tone.

The moment of truth has arrived, with the Senate close to a deal on financial regulatory reform. But the president went much easier as he could have during a gathering that included Wall Street executives whose firms .

For starters, Obama insisted he would not gloat about having warned of a crisis in his last speech in that very same spot, in March 2008. (Not even a little? That's how you establish cred.) And he urged Wall Street executives to call off the legions of executives who are now prowling the halls of Congress. (Yep, that's gonna happen.)

"Join us instead of fighting us," the president said.

He doesn't really mean that, does he?

The last time the financial system got a good going-over, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. No one expects the florid prose of yesteryear to make its way into today's presidential speeches, but that patrician flashed more steel than our Chicago pol president did today.

Take a look at this passage from FDR's inaugural address in 1933, when the United States was deep in the thrall of the Great Depression, and think about how FDR might have used the occasion today in the argot of 2010:

Our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts.

2010: This mess did not happen because we're dumb. And it's not an act of God like the Haiti earthquake either. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

To the country at large we: made it through the Great Depression and won World War II, so don't get down in the dumps. We have an enormously productive economy, even if Wall Street screwed up. Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failures and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

Wall Street has - kinda, sorta - admitted its role in the crisis. Fortunately, the public knows the truth about why this happened. True, they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money.

But all Wall Street wants is more bailouts. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored conditions. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.

For decades, the Street got used to thinking it was the center of the universe, and that massive bonuses were its divine right. If you're in your early 30s like Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs banker accused of fraud by the SEC, you can't even imagine another world but it did. And Wall Street traders did not run the show there. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

They are blinded by greed. The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.

So, Wall Street, you had your chance in the driver's seat, and we nearly drove off a cliff. Get in the back seat, and shut your mouths.

Presidents establish their place in history by taking on a minority that has inflicted great injustices on the country. Think of Lincoln and the southern elites in the Civil War, or Johnson's willingness to fight hard-core segregationists. They were not bucking the great majority of the country but a tiny slice that had gotten a grip on the country's politics and caused a crisis.

That is what Wall Street did. And it harmed all sorts of businesses, homeowners and workers who have suffered in the crisis - the "real economy" that is composed of the rest of us.

Will Obama take on the minority like FDR did? Now is the time.

  • Carter Dougherty

    Carter Dougherty, a former economic correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, is fascinated by the intersection between policy and business, in the United States and abroad. He shared in a Loeb Award, business journalism's most prestigious, while at the NYT. But he still looks back fondly on his days trudging through central Africa, reporting on Congo, Darfur and other rough spots.