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Obama channels his inner populist and attacks bankers

January 14, 2010 | 10:06 am


President Obama channeled his inner populist this morning, announcing that he wants to impose a fee on banks to help recover taxpayer funds used to rescue Wall Street.

In announcing the new fees, Obama was harsh to the institutions whose greed and speculation drove the economy downhill and required billions of dollars of taxpayer aid. Much of the money has been repaid, but the administration estimates that more than $117 billion will be lost and it hopes to recover those funds from the new fee over 10 years.

“My commitment is to recover every single dime the American people are owed,” Obama said this morning. “And my determination to achieve this goal is only heightened when I see reports of massive profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms who owe their continued existence to the American people -- who have not been made whole, and who continue to face real hardship in this recession.”

“We want our money back,” Obama insisted.

The political adage is: “Taxes are never popular.” But that old saw should really be, “Taxing me is wrong, but taxing someone else is OK.” Because taxes levied on political unpopular targets are easier to pass.

And bankers, never very popular, are an especially easy target right....

... now. According to Gallup's annual Honesty and Ethics poll, taken in the fall, just 19% of those polled spoke well of bankers, a significant drop from a few years ago when 35% spoke well of the group.

That put bankers significantly below nurses, the top-rated group with a better than four out of five approval rating. Still, bankers could feel some comfort since they did better than lawyers at 13%.

Approval is just one test of political might and in many cases not even the most important one. Bankers and their lobbyists have flooded the halls of Congress recently as they fight back against tough financial regulation.

Obama is urging them to do the right thing and accept tighter rules.

“We are already hearing a hue and cry from Wall Street, suggesting that this proposed fee is not only unwelcome but unfair, that by some twisted logic, it is more appropriate for the American people to bear the cost of the bailout rather than the industry that benefited from it, even though these executives are out there giving themselves huge bonuses,” Obama said.

“What I’d say to these executives is this: Instead of setting a phalanx of lobbyists to fight this proposal or employing an army of lawyers and accountants to help evade the fee, I’d suggest you might want to consider simply meeting your responsibility,” the president said.

-- Michael Muskal

Photo: Obama leaves White House podium  Jan. 14, 2010, with, from left, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, and Budget Director Peter Orszag, after he announced a new fee on big banks to recover up to $120 billion in taxpayers' money used to prop up corporations during the economic crisis. Credit: AP Photo / Charles Dharapak