Obama's Wimp Factor

By Liz Peek
Financial Columnist

President Obama is like the starving cheapskate at a smorgasbord; he wants it all, but refuses to pay for it. Health care reform, climate control, smarter schools, "fairer" taxes, greener vegetables and fat-free ice cream for everybody -- they're all on the agenda. (Okay, so I snuck in the last two, but no one's really counting.) Our ambitious young leader isn't drawing tight the purse strings; he's refusing to spend the real coin of the political realm - his personal popularity.


Obama continues to refuse to dip into his treasure chest of popularity but he needs to be prepared to lose some of the "love" in the love fest that surrounds him.


Obama knows, as has every president before him, that he has a window of opportunity. When first elected, each new commander-in-chief has a store of goodwill at his disposal. Some presidents have more, some have less. There's no question that Mr. Obama has a veritable warehouse of public enthusiasm available, but astonishingly, he's as tight as a tick about spending it.

Soon, Obama's window will begin to close, and he knows it. His panicky call to supporters about health care reform from Air Force One the other day said it all. "If we don't get it done this year, we won't get it done," he said. He's right.

Yet, Obama refuses to dip into his treasure chest of popularity. Every time he has to offend some constituency, he shies away. Take the recent, much-ballyhooed tobacco legislation. One of the facets of the bill was that it banned flavors which supposedly make smoking more appealing. The only flavor of any importance - menthol - was, however, left off the list. Why? Because the Congressional Black Caucus lobbied for the omission, knowing that three-quarters of black voters prefer mentholated cigarettes.

This was simple (and unhealthy) pandering to a group that is unlikely to snub President Obama come Election Day. But, Obama couldn't bring himself to spend even a nickel of his popularity passing legislation that might actually reduce smoking.

This thriftiness is even more visible in Obama's plans to overhaul financial regulation. There has been building sentiment that the cut-and-paste approach to financial regulation in this country is disastrously confusing and inefficient. Some attribute the subprime mortgage catastrophe and subsequent recession in part to the ability of financial institutions to shop for the friendliest regulator, and the inability of overseers to see from a top-down perch the excesses building in the system. There has been universal agreement that we need to simplify and streamline the dozens of regulatory authorities that have sprung up as the financial services industry has evolved.

The Obama plan, to be rolled out this week, incredibly adds a layer of regulation by proposing two new structures - a "council of regulators" which will apparently be made up of those in charge of the existing agencies - and a new body to oversee consumer products like mortgages and credit cards.

I doubt that anyone in the Obama administration could possibly imagine that this is an improvement over the existing messy status quo. But - surprise! It turns out that the Congressional committees that are charged with regulating the regulators enjoy those powerful positions, and refuse to give them up. Who would Barney Frank be if he couldn't excoriate the titans of Wall Street in his Financial Services Committee? Who would have ever heard of Collin Peterson, except for his oversight of the House Agricultural Committee, which just happens to manage the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission?

Instead of pressing his allies in Congress to accept some diminishment of their responsibilities, Obama caved, perpetuating a dysfunctional regulatory system. Some might welcome this tendency of the president, since it reduces many initiatives to mere gestures. However, the concern for taxpayers is that this proclivity is bound to generate bad legislation. Among Obama's strongest supporters are union members who have already been favored on a number of important fronts. The worrisome disregard for established bankruptcy proceedings in the treatment of Chrysler and GM bondholders, the inclusion of a "buy America" provision in the stimulus bill, the threat to cut off aid to California if the state lopped off some union employees, the elimination of a pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to operate in the U.S., the idiotic "cash for clunkers" program that will give buyers the opportunity to trade up to a distinctly un-green Hummer - these are just a few examples of union-friendly moves that raise costs and guarantee votes.

Among our greatest challenges is improving the public education system in the U.S. Most would agree that any significant gains will threaten the powerful National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers whose nearly 5 million members ponied up generously for Obama's campaign and worked hard to get out the vote. Arne Duncan, Obama's Education czar, comes with an excellent reputation, and a notable history of championing charter schools that can often skirt union rules. To be successful, Mr. Duncan will have to roll back the insane practice of guaranteeing automatic life-long tenure and extinguish other measures which embrace mediocrity. Unfortunately, one of his first moves was to derail a prized voucher program in Washington, D.C. - not an auspicious start.

I wish Mr. Duncan good luck. To make any real progress, he will have to persuade President Obama to unlock his treasure chest of popularity, and to lose the love-fest. That may be his biggest challenge of all.