The Note, 6/17/2009: Windmills & Bulldozers — Will anyone love a middle path to financial reform?

By Caitlin Taylor

Jun 17, 2009 8:16am

By RICK KLEIN Welcome back to politics without a constituency. Remember the financial crisis? President Obama does — and he’s back at it Wednesday with his long-awaited plan to reorganize the nation’s financial sector, with a 12:50 pm ET White House event. (The word of the day is “sweeping.”) It presents the president with a political challenge that’s come up time and again in his approach to the major issues of the day. Obambi emerged from the forest long ago — this is Obama as Goldilocks. Even before it’s unveiled, his financial reforms look likely to feed perceptions in two competing directions — another expansion of the government’s role, yet one that resists calls to start from scratch. It is — like his emerging health care plan, his handling of the auto industry, and Obama’s approach to gay rights and immigration and war funding, to name just a few — an approach that’s designed to please everyone and no one. Conservatives will bemoan the government intervention. Liberals will clamor for a whole new regulatory infrastructure. Congress will mix it into a glop — maybe sidetracked by health care and the rest of the agenda. Once again, the most powerful political force the president can hope to marshal is his own (still-considerable) brand. Once again, Obama plays the middle — and hopes that perceptions match expectations. (And once again, the president can be thankful for disorder inside the GOP ranks.)  “Although it would strikingly reorganize the regulatory architecture, the president’s plan results from many compromises with industry executives and lawmakers, and is not as bold as some had hoped,” Stephen Labaton writes in The New York Times.  “Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge as much when he posed the question: ‘Did, you know, any considerations of sort of politics play into it? We want to get this thing passed, and, you know, we think that speed is important. We want to do it right. We want to do it carefully. But we don’t want to tilt at windmills.’ ” Another metaphor: “Senior officials debated using a bulldozer to clear the way for fundamental reforms but decided instead to build within the shell of the existing system, offering what amounts to an architect’s blueprint for modernizing a creaky old building,” Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho report in The Washington Post.  “He’s proposing new government powers for the executive branch, and a new government agency,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America.” “Critics charge that the administration is on a power grab.” He’ll need to build in some patience to his calculations: The president told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt Tuesday that he thinks unemployment will reach 10 percent by the end of the year. (His economic folks once said it would stay under 8 percent if the stimulus package passed.)  “You’re starting to see the engines of the economy turn,” Obama told Al Hunt. “It’s going to take a long time — we had a huge de-leveraging that took place. . . . Jobs are a lagging indicator.”  Given the depth and breadth of government expansions, this seems well-placed: The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib writes that the president has grown “anxious.” “The president and his aides have reached a point of potential political peril, where the massive interventions they have made to deal with the recession and virtual collapse of Detroit — to be followed soon by an attempt to overhaul the U.S. health system — can be seen as the opening stages of a reordering of the American economy,” Seib writes.  Said Obama: “I think the irony … is that I actually would like to see a relatively light touch when it comes to the government.” Speaking to the other side: “Wednesday marks the time to get tough on the culture of greed,” Kenneth Bazinet and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily News. “President Obama is rolling out plans to beef up federal regulators and launch a new financial watchdog in hopes of curbing the excess he blames for the global financial meltdown.”  The bureaucratic end: “Already drawing barbs from a range of skeptics, the proposals will include the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to look out for consumers’ rights and a comprehensive crackdown on securities markets,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe writes.  “One new detail is that any large, interconnected company that the government wants to take over and break up could be pushed into government seizure by the Treasury Department, if certain conditions are met,” Damian Paletta reports in The Wall Street Journal.  Selling it: “The key thing to say is that the status quo is not an option,” Christina Romer, chairm of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Diane Sawyer on “GMA.” “Healthcare reform and financial regulatory reform sort of all go together — this is the president’s theme of not only getting through this crisis, but coming through stronger, a new foundation for the economy.” But is this tough enough? “I would like to see a little bit of [George W. Bush] in Barack Obama, not care so much if he is popular, not care so much if he is stepping on toes, not care so much if he is expending too much political capital,” Bill Maher told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I would like to see him lay it on the line and stand up against the energy companies, the banking industry, the health care industry, all the corporations who really need to be stood up to.” The response . . . Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, tells ABC’s Matthew Jaffe: “It’s kind of like taking rotted wood and putting a fresh coat of paint on it — to some extent, it doesn’t solve the problem and it can make it worse by hiding flaws that lie underneath.”  “We’ll have the federal government deciding what interest ought to be charged on credit cards,” House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told ABC’s Robin Roberts on “GMA.” “I just think the government involvement in the financial industry is going to be too big of a foot on an industry that’s already having problems.” (And look for the GOP health care plan Wednesday.) Can he move this package even while the health care message spirals out of Democrats’ control? It’s about the price tag now — and until or unless the Congressional Budget Office changes the way it counts the supposed savings that are out there, it’s going to be this way for a while. “The latest cost estimates for health care legislation in Congress are around $1.6 trillion over 10 years, two Senate sources said Tuesday as concerns mounted over the price tag for the sweeping overhaul,” the AP’s Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports.  Everyone got a good old scare from the scoring of the Kennedy bill: “Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is working on a separate but related version of health care reform, admitted today that a past proposal by his committee was estimated by CBO to cost $1.5 trillion over ten years,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports. “But Baucus said today things have changed since that CBO estimate two weeks ago. When will we know his final proposal? It’s still not clear.”  “It’s clear there have got to be changes made to make the whole package affordable,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., per The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear.  “In addressing the cost issue, Democrats voiced deep internal discord over how to pay for the legislation, with some pushing to tax employer-provided health benefits above a preset limit and others urging tax increases outside the health arena,” they write. “Despite the high cost estimate, the health committee said it would proceed on Wednesday with its first public work on the sweeping legislation.” The Boston Globe’s Lisa Wangsness: “The skirmishes over the cost estimates underscored the tension building around the healthcare bill and the enormous political stakes involved for Democrats, as the White House and congressional leaders shovel increasing amounts of political capital onto an expensive and complex issue.” A marketing problem, plus a policy problem: “President Obama’s plan to expand health coverage to the uninsured is likely to dig the nation deeper into debt unless policymakers adopt politically painful controls on spending, such as sharp reductions in payments to doctors, hospitals and other providers, congressional budget analysts said yesterday,” Lori Montgomery, Shailagh Murray and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post.  “While popular measures such as increasing preventive care, expanding the use of electronic medical records and rewarding doctors for choosing more effective treatments have the potential to lower costs, ‘little reliable evidence exists about exactly how to implement those types of changes,’ Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas W. Elmendorf said in a letter to Senate budget leaders.” What the White House wants, or the opposite of what the White House wants? “Centrist House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are working together privately on healthcare reform,” The Hill’s Molly K. Hooper reports. “The talks have been so secretive and politically sensitive that some members interviewed by The Hill refused to name other legislators involved in the bipartisan effort.”  “The emerging packages make clear that Democrats will have to choose between a more liberal option that most fully achieves their goals, or a compromise with Republicans on key issues,” The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler and Greg Hitt report.  The mark-up begins Wednesday in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s committee on Kennedy’s bill — without Kennedy there: “The clearest sign of Kennedy’s absence from the Committee is what’s still missing from the draft legislation,” Time’s Karen Tumulty writes. “Committee chairmen on Capitol Hill generally prefer to go into “markup” with a rough version of the bill that is as close as possible to what they expect to see in the finished product. However, the HELP committee will begin its work with one that is missing many of its central components. Among the contentious items still to be worked out are the shape of a government-run public health plan to compete with private insurance, and an expected requirement that nearly every employer provide health coverage for its workers.”  Wednesday’s lobbying push starts at the top: Former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and Howard Baker announce recommendations at a noon ET press conference in Washington, as organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center.  And it moves down to the state level, with the Progressive States Network fanning out on the Hill and to the White House to make the case.  Enough to buy some quiet? “ABC News has learned that tomorrow President Obama will sign a presidential memorandum extending benefits to the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian federal employees,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “The move was long planned, sources say, though it comes at a time that gay and lesbian supporters of the president are expressing anger and disappointment at his inaction on rescinding Don’t Ask/Dont Tell, his opposition to same-sex marriage, and his support for the anti-same-sex-marriage Defense of Marriage Act in a legal brief that compared same-sex unions to incestuous ones.”  “It was not immediately clear whether Obama’s latest decision would mollify his critics,” Mark Z. Barabak and Jessica Garrison report in the Los Angeles Times. “Some offered only grudging support Tuesday night after learning of the president’s intentions.”  Enough to create some noise? “President Barack Obama, Democratic congressional leaders and advocates of revamping the nation’s immigration laws say that developing a comprehensive immigration bill this year is a top priority, despite an already full legislative plate,” McClatchy’s William Douglas reports. “They got a reality check on the potential bumps ahead when the White House recently postponed a bipartisan meeting on immigration that had been set for Wednesday — the second cancellation this month — because of ‘scheduling conflicts,’ administration officials told invited guests.”  That was quick: Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., unleashes a storm on his political future:  “Calling it ‘absolutely the worst thing that I’ve ever done in my life,’ U.S. Sen. John Ensign admitted Tuesday that he had an affair with a campaign staffer last year,” Molly Ball and Steve Tetreault report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. ” ‘If there was ever anything that I could take back in my life, this would be it,’ Ensign, 51, said Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas, reading from a prepared statement in a brief news conference at which he took no questions,” they write. “The Nevada Republican, a leading conservative voice in his party who has been listed as possible presidential material, indicated that he plans to remain in office and that his wife of 21 years, Darlene, is standing by him.” “Political insiders in Nevada and in the Senate said that Ensign decided to acknowledge the affair publicly after the husband of the woman he had been seeing asked him for a substantial sum of money,” Politico’s Manu Raju and John Bresnahan report.  The context: “John Ensign is a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate, and he had been considering a run for the presidency in 2012;  that was before this,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported on “GMA” Wednesday. Maybe a good day for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.? “Ensign’s mea culpa tops bad day for GOP: Senator acknowledges infidelity, governor’s chief of staff quits, state senator resigns,” reads the Las Vegas Sun headline.  This is it? “Thursday night’s joint Democratic fundraiser headlined by President Barack Obama is expected to bring in a total of $3 million for the two Democratic campaign committees, according to a party strategist familiar with the event,” Roll Call’s John McArdle reports. “The figure is surprisingly low considering Obama’s vaunted fundraising ability during the 2008 presidential campaign and the fact that this is the first joint fundraiser benefiting Congressional Democrats since the party regained control of the White House. It’s also about $11.5 million less than what GOP officials said they raised last week for the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee at a dinner featuring former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).”  An army’s marching orders: “Obama, who enlisted a 13 million-member grassroots army to help him win the White House, is trying to remobilize those people to build support for his proposed overhaul,” Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla writes. “That goal may prove elusive. The constituencies that joined forces to back Obama the candidate disagree over the scope of the health-care overhaul, particularly whether it should create a so-called single-payer system that reimburses providers through a government-run fund.” 
The Kicker: “That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it? I got the sucker.” — President Obama, swatting a fly during his interview with CNBC’s John Harwood.  “It doesn’t matter that Barack Obama wasn’t an original member of the DLC and that he’s got his own brand.” — Former President Bill Clinton, on the legacy of the Democratic Leadership Council. 
Today on “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and blogger Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake. Noon ET. Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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