This post describes a well-attended, energized training event organized by Downtown East/Gramercy for Obama that was held at Organizing for America New York headquarters in Manhattan last night (Thursday, April 22) and a first-person account of President Obama’s remarks on Wall Street reform at the Cooper Union earlier in the day. Let the reforms go forth . . .
Last night Downtown East/Gramercy for Obama hosted (at OFA-NY HQ) a standing-room-only "Wall Street Reform for Dummies" with guest speaker Minna Elias, chief of staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. President Obama himself led off the evening—we played a podcast of his 4/17 Weekly Radio Address—and he had set the progressive, can-do tone in his late-morning speech on Wall Street reform at the Cooper Union with prominent New York bankers and politicos in the audience (see below).
The 75-plus attendees at OFA headquarters weren’t dummies, of course, but Wall Street issues are so complex, and the House and Senate bills’ reforms are broad and intricate enough that even the politically engaged need help in getting a grip on the big picture and key details. (Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, 14th District, is a member of the House Committee on Financial Services, which passed the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009 [H.R. 4173] in December. She also introduced a Credit Card Holder’s Bill of Rights—she’s been called by Money magazine "the best friend a credit card user ever had"—and attended the Rose Garden ceremony when President Obama signed the Credit Card Bill of Rights into law.)
But first: The session’s secondary aim was on rallying the troops and focusing the issues for the 2010 midterm congressional elections. Geoff Berman, OFA’s New York State Deputy Field Director, spoke about the principal issues Democrats will be running on—especially the health care bill (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) signed by President Obama and Wall Street reform—and the importance of shoring up Democratic seats in Congress. Geoff answered question after question from a very engaged and already "fired up" roomful of volunteers.
"Wall Street Reform for Dummies"
Minna Elias gave the group a comprehensive background of how the 2008 Wall Street crash came about, and explained the basics of the reforms President Obama is proposing—fixes included in the House and Senate bills—with two main objectives: to create strong consumer protections and to rein in Wall Street abuses and hold big banks accountable. The four main points outlined by the president (see his 4/22 Cooper Union address below):
• Hold Wall Street accountable
• Protect American families from unfair, abusive financial practices
• Close the gaps in our financial system
• Reform is critical to market certainty and stable economic growth
The audience (members ranged in age from 20s to 60s) asked Ms. Elias informed, focused questions that showed they’ve been following the news and trying to make sense of the details. She emphasized that the New York congressional delegation and the president all want the city’s financial industry to prosper, but in a way that is stable and responsible, not reliant on credit bubbles or risky schemes, and in a way that doesn’t put the broader economy at risk of financial shocks and sudden downturns.
(By the way, the session’s organizers, including yours truly, were not sure how fascinated the audience would be—would their eyes glaze over?—but the question-and-answer period could easily have gone on for another hour at least. Indeed, Ms. Elias kindly continued answering attendees’ questions out in the hall after her remarks. We’re very grateful for her time.)
Countering the Opposition, Firing Up for 2010 Midterms
The evening’s next phase focused on how to counter the opposition’s "talking points" put forth by GOP strategist and pollster Frank Luntz, and then on generating ideas about rallying volunteer commitment to help Democrats hold and win new seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Luntz’s 17-page memo titled "The Language of Financial Reform" has gotten some attention in the past few weeks, with reports in Time magazine and Huffington Post, among other sources—and of course everyone’s been hearing these phrases parroted by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner (Boehner has also gone off-script, saying some things even beyond the pale of Luntz’s "words that work"). Among the poll-tested scare phrases are such predictable lines as "authorizes [or even mandates] future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street," "filled with lobbyist loopholes," and "increases size and power of government."
[ Here are links to some of the issue sheets we handed out: White House Wall Street Reform Issues Sheet • Summary of Senate Financial Reform Bill • Basics of House’s Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (H.R. 4173) • Highlights of H.R. 4173 • "A GOP Financial Reform Bellwether: McConnell Attacks Financial Reform Bill" (Time magazine) ]
We stressed to the group that OFA and Democrats are not "against" Republicans, per se, because some (Corker, Shelby, etc.) have actually been somewhat cooperative, however under-the-radar, and because they understand that it’s in their political interest to vote for holding Wall Street accountable. Bob Corker (R-TN) has told Roll Call, "The things that we’ve been saying on our side of the aisle about bailouts and all that, they miss the point." By the way, the $50 billion fund that McConnell has mischaracterized as a "taxpayer bailout" would (if it survives) be paid by the financial institutions—emphatically not by taxpayers. An aide to Chris Dodd has said that this fund can only be used to liquidate failed firms, and "the language specifically says that only the FDIC has access to those funds." As for "filled with lobbyist loopholes," Republicans in the House and Senate have had significant input into the legislation: Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Corker have had extensive dealings with Dodd and the Banking committee. Sam Stein of HuffPo reports that the $50 billion fund vilified by GOP as a "bailout" was "the byproduct of a bipartisan negotiation between Bob Corker (R-TN) and Mark Warner (D-VA)." Further, Richard Shelby (R-AL) worked with Dodd and Treasury officials in dozens of meetings throughout summer 2009, and "bipartisan working groups" were "established to resolve lingering differences." So, Republicans may want to disavow any connection to legislation they denounce as a "bailout"—trying to have it both ways—but it’s their creation too. Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) has welcomed Republicans’ input, wanting a bill with wide support (and needing their votes).
Some of the facts above are a little more detailed than the myth-vs.-fact clarification we provided for the volunteers, but it gives you a taste of the Rapid Response attitude and awareness we’re trying to cultivate to defend Wall Street reform.
Then we asked volunteers to gather into groups of 8 to 12 for two activities of about 15 minutes each. First, to role-play with one person as an opponent of reform (or unfamiliar with issues), with the others in the group responding with arguments to support the pro-reform position and to generally brainstorm on how to make the case for Wall Street reform. The second activity was to come up with ways to rev up the troops to work for Democratic victories in the 2010 midterm elections, and then to come up with one or two action plans that volunteers could use. Then the groups broke up and reported back to the main body. Action plans included making lists of 10 accomplishments the Democrats have enacted since President Obama took office that we can use to encourage support of Democratic candidates in the midterm elections: "This is the good stuff you get when you elect Democrats." Many of the groups voiced an eagerness to sustain and recapture the spirit of the 2008 elections. "We want that feeling again." As Geoff Berman had explained earlier, midterms traditionally attract older, more conservative voters—midterms are not as "sexy" as presidential elections—so we want to make sure that we mobilize as many Obama supporters as possible so we keep Democrats in Congress to help the President continue fulfilling his campaign promises. Health Reform: check. Wall Street reform: looks promising. Energy and Climate legislation: coming soon. Keep Democrats in office, bring in more, and these improvements for the American people are not just promises of "change we can believe in" but reality. And we need you.
Obama to Bankers: "Join us, instead of fighting us."
"Through the great banking houses of Manhattan last week ran wild-eyed alarm. Big bankers stared at one another in anger and astonishment. A bill just passed . . . would rivet upon their institutions what they considered a monstrous system . . . such a system, they felt, would not only rob them of their pride of profession but would reduce all U.S. banking to its lowest level." —Time magazine, June 1933, quoted by President Obama (to great applause)
[Photo by casperr]
The President’s remarks at Cooper Union have been reported widely elsewhere, so the following will be brief. It was a privilege to sit in the Great Hall where over the last 150 years audiences have gathered to hear Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, Susan B. Anthony and other advocates for woman suffrage, speakers for the NAACP and the American labor movement, and presidents of the United States including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton, and another illustrious (former) congressman from Illinois: Senator Obama the presidential candidate spoke at Cooper Union on "Renewing the American Economy" in March 2008, a half year before the crash.
Among President Obama’s audience were Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, state attorney general Andrew Cuomo and former governor Mario Cuomo, police commissioner Raymond Kelly, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and, among the president’s advisers, Paul Volcker, Rahm Emanuel, and Valerie Jarrett. Among the Wall Street titans seated in the front rows, presumably so that they wouldn’t miss a word the President said (or so he could keep an eye on them), were top executives from Goldman Sachs, Barclays PLC, and other firms.
Obama’s message was concise and focused, his tone moderate, and he sounded confident that Congress would pass the reforms, so he didn’t have to make a hard sell. His address was not confrontational, but neither was it timid. Although press accounts have said that the President was "chiding" the bankers, about the harshest thing Obama said was, "Unless your business model depends on bilking people, there is little to fear from these new rules." Otherwise, unless anything but fawning flattery is harsh criticism, the President said nothing to antagonize the Wall Street men.
Competing with The Onion or the "Oblivious-to-Irony Review," the New York Post’s cover showed a golden goose with a tag helpfully identifying it as "Wall Street" accompanying a front-page editorial titled "Dear Mr. President: Don’t Kill the Golden Goose: City Economy Imperiled in the Name of ‘Reform’." The editorial bears little resemblance to the President’s actual remarks or the legislation Congress is weighing. Really, he went easy on the bankers. And, as a pointed counterargument (though perhaps he doesn’t read the Post), see Paul Krugman’s column "Don’t Cry for Wall Street."
One thing that struck this listener was that President Obama’s reforms are changes that capitalists should love (you would think), for don’t business people desire stability, predictability? Isn’t that good for making budgets and projections? Doesn’t the economic system depend on consumer confidence? A phrase from the White House’s Financial Reform blog (and I’m sure chairmen Chris Dodd and Barney Frank—and FDR, for that matter—would agree) states the Democrats’ objective quite clearly:
A key test of a strong financial system is whether or not it effectively channels savings to finance future innovation. Today’s system produced waves of credit bubbles and real estate booms followed by severe financial shocks and damage. We need a financial system that is not only interested in short-term profits, but in long-term growth, entrepreneurship, and savings.
It was good that the bankers heard the audience’s standing ovation, the frequent and sustained applause, and they just may have heard our friend Citizen Reno shout out, "I love you, Mr. Volcker!" when the tall economic adviser took his seat on the front row (on the opposite side from the bankers). They heard, but did they listen?
Organizing for America is working to make sure the members of Congress hear us, and maybe the bankers will listen to the law. Maybe. Whether they do or they don’t, we’ll keep working to make sure that whatever passes from Congress to the President’s signature is not the end but a beginning of Wall Street reform and a return to prosperity that is shared by all Americans.
Mark LaFlaur is a a volunteer working with the Downtown East/Gramercy for Obama chapter of Organizing for America (OFA).