Obama Stadium Speech Puts Bank Battle in Spotlight

Bank of America, Democrats scale back financial ties.

August 24, 2012, 5:40 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Sept. 4, 2012 — -- When President Obama takes the stage here Thursday inside the 75,000-seat Bank of America Stadium, he and the venue's namesake will become forever intertwined in the annals of political history.

Obama will become the first sitting American president to give an acceptance speech in an outdoor pro-sports arena with tickets available to the general public.

It's also the first time an incumbent will make a primetime convention appeal in the shadow of a major bank he battled during his first term.

While the Charlotte-based Bank of America does not own the stadium or have a sponsorship role in the Democratic National Convention, its name is everywhere, from glowing letters on the stadium's facade to logos plastered near the end zone Jumbotron.

Each reference is a reminder of the bank's high-profile role in the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession, a $45 billion government bailout and what has been its, at times, contentious relationship with Obama over the past three and a half years.

At the height of the financial crisis in 2009, the president publicly shamed Bank of America and its peers for the financial practices that contributed to the recession. And he lobbied them to boost lending and back regulatory reform.

"I think that the 'bully pulpit' can be a powerful thing," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in 2009 after Bank of America executives met with Obama.

Amid heated populist debate last year over Bank of America's planned $5 monthly debit card fee, Obama made the bank a poster child of profit-seeking at the expense of the average consumer.

He called the fee "not a good practice" and blasted the bank's unwillingness to "take a little bit less of a profit" during an interview with ABC News.

Earlier this year, the Obama Justice Department squeezed millions from the bank as part of a $25 billion federal settlement over abusive mortgage practices and assurances it would cease the practice of so-called "robo-signing," which helped push thousands of homeowners into vulnerable financial positions and into foreclosure.

"America's biggest banks, banks that were rescued by taxpayer dollars, will be required to right these wrongs," Obama said at the time. "They will deliver some measure of justice for families that have already been victims of abusive practices."

The juxtaposition of Bank of America and Obama's nomination -- more coincidence than choice -- may be awkward for Democrats, who have seemed eager to distance themselves from the ties during their big convention week.

Several early, official, DNC-related communications referred to the final night's venue as "Panther's Stadium," suggesting an attempt to drop the Bank of America reference -- a motive Democratic officials have denied.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee in August quietly announced it was transferring all of its accounts and financial business from Bank of America to the union-owned Amalgamated Bank. One credit line has already moved and other accounts are underway, sources said.

As for support for Obama among Bank of America employees, political contributions have been flowing heavily to Republican Mitt Romney. Individual contributors at the company have given a combined half a million dollars to Romney, making up the fourth-most-lucrative corporate donation source behind Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley. Obama has only received roughly $100,000 from BOA employees, according to Open Secrets.

Officials with the Democratic National Convention, the Obama campaign and Bank of America dismiss the idea of any awkwardness or lingering tension between the administration and the bank, something sometimes assumed in the wake of sweeping Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law.

They add that none of those issues will steal the spotlight during Obama's acceptance speech Thursday night.

"That record [on financial reform] and the president's policies are not impacted by what sign hangs on a stadium," said DNC spokeswoman Melanie Roussell.

"By holding the final night of our convention at Bank of America stadium, tens of thousands more Americans will be able to attend and be engaged in our convention," she said. "That stands in stark contrast to the Republican convention in Tampa, where there were no opportunities for the public to attend convention proceedings."

The association of Obama with Bank of America could also prove to be an opportunity for the president to bask -- even if indirectly -- in his success at wrangling with the big banks.

His administration succeeded at imposing new financial regulations on Wall Street and establishing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, not to mention that Obama's intervention on the debit card fee issue, in part, forced Bank of America to reverse course.

Meanwhile, the bank has appeared to thrive. Its stock price -- one measure of financial health -- has rebounded from a low of $3.14 in March 2009 to $8.23 today. Bank of America also reported $2.1 billion profit in the second quarter of 2012, even as the mortgage crisis continues to be a drag.

Bank officials say they welcome the extra attention to their brand thanks to Obama's stadium speech. "That's why you buy naming rights to a stadium," one official said.