NEW YORK – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told Wall Street investors Monday that several of them have been too focused on their own gain at the expense of struggling Americans and echoed Franklin Delano Roosevelt's call for a "reappraisal of values."
Obama prides himself on delivering tough messages directly to the source, and his address at the NASDAQ Marketsite was another example. He said a "what's good for me is good enough" mentality has crept into parts of the business world while working men and women toil longer hours and still struggle to pay for health care, tuition and taxes.
"If we are honest, I think we must admit that those who have benefited from the new global marketplace — and that includes almost everyone in this room — have not always concerned themselves with the losers in this new economy," the Illinois senator said.
"The danger with this mentality isn't just that it offends our morals, it's that it endangers our markets," Obama said.
Economic experts including former Commerce secretary Bill Daley, former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson and University of Chicago economist Austan D. Goolsbee helped Obama with the speech, which risks alienating some Wall Street supporters. But Obama said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he is determined not just to campaign by telling people what they want to hear, but to win support for an agenda for change.
Other examples include Obama's lecture to Detroit automakers that they need to build more fuel efficient vehicles and his support for performance-based merit pay before the teacher's union that opposes it.
Obama blamed Wall Street for wasteful and unethical anti-market practices such as corporate boards that allow executives to set the price of stock options to guarantee they'll make money regardless of performance and CEOs who get massive severance packages or perks even when workers lose their jobs or pensions. But he also accused the Bush administration of approving mergers with little scrutiny and maintaining more than $1 trillion worth of corporate tax loopholes.
"This administration has accelerated these trends through its tax policies and spending priorities to the point where there is greater income inequality now than at any time since the Gilded Age," Obama said. He also compared the situation to the Great Depression, when Roosevelt challenged the cynicism by calling for faith in the United States and its institutions.
"We certainly do not face a test of the magnitude that Roosevelt's generation did, but we are tested still," Obama said.
"I am asking you to join me in ushering in a new era of mutual responsibility in America," he said. He said he believes Wall Street leaders want to be part of building a more just nation, but they haven't been asked before.
He used the subprime mortgage crisis as an example, saying it started as a good idea until some lenders and brokers began lowering their standards as they saw how much money could be made. It was tempting to look the other way, he said.
"The consequences are now clear: nearly 2.5 million homeowners could lose their homes" and millions of others could see their homes devalued, Obama said.
Obama said markets need to be more open and transparent to keep the trust of investors and the public. He said that trust can be restored by federal action like:
— New mortgage rules with tough penalties for lenders who trick homeowners into loans they can't afford;
— An investigation of the relationship and business practices of rating agencies and their clients;
— A five-star credit card rating system to inform consumers about the level of risk for their credit card, including how easily the company can change the interest rate;
— A request that lenders show some flexibility to people trying to sell or refinance their homes.