by Joshua H. Liberatore
One of the more instructive and amusing consequences of making a living as copyeditor to the Presidents is to face the daily reminder that the similarities in the officeholders are always more compelling than the differences. When you spend six to eight hours a day listening to White House rhetoric, studying its flexible grammar, absorbing its peculiar lexicon, punctuating its variable rhythms, the differences in party, persuasion, and even personality gradually reveal themselves to be more stylistic surface than substantive core. And despite the mainstream media’s deployment of well-paid journalists and pundits who also make it their business to engorge themselves with presidential actions and words (we have this in common), their presentation always seems to highlight and celebrate the gaping chasms of distinction. Difference smacks of conflict, and discord makes good copy and television. Nevertheless, this obsession with strife is dishonest in its tendency to overstate. Take for example the timely theme of reforming the country’s financial regulations. The setting: New York City.
This crisis did not develop overnight, and it’s not going to be solved overnight. But our actions are having an impact. Credit markets are beginning to thaw. Businesses are gaining access to essential short-term financing. A measure of stability is returning to financial systems here at home and around the world. It’s going to require more time for these improvements to fully take hold, and there’s going to be difficult days ahead. (November 17, 2008).
As you’ll recall, our former POTUS had just engaged Congress to pass a $700 billion dollar financial rescue package (this became known as TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program), and credit markets were slowly beginning to respond, which most of us experienced in the form of dismal statements from our retirement portfolios and interest rates on savings accounts dipping below one percent. With the immediate crisis attended to, POTUS now faced a politically difficult obligation that seemed to go against every partisan instinct in his Texan soul: calling for expanded regulation and oversight over financial transactions of all sorts, an early version of what’s now termed Wall Street reform. His venue being the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative “market-oriented” think tank, POTUS had to qualify a lot of what he was saying, but his basic message, however uncomfortable, was to sketch the various ways in which the government needed to take a more active supervisory role in the economy. The whole speech in brief:
One vital principle of reform is that our nations must make our financial markets more transparent. For example, we should consider improving accounting rules for securities, so that investors around the world can understand the true value of the assets they purchase. . . . Secondly, we must ensure that markets, firms, and financial products are properly regulated. For example, credit default swaps – financial products that insure against potential losses – should be processed through centralized clearinghouses instead of through unregulated, over-the-counter markets. . . . Third, we must enhance the integrity of our financial markets. For example, authorities in every nation should take a fresh look at the rules governing market manipulation and fraud and ensure that investors are properly protected. Fourth, we must strengthen cooperation among the world’s financial authorities. For example, leading nations should better coordinate national laws and regulations. (November 17, 2008)
Transparency, increased regulation, market integrity, and international cooperation – nothing offensive in that. Our current POTUS followed a remarkably similar script during his recent trip to New York, where he made remarks at The Cooper Union, one of the nation’s top art schools. Like his predecessor, POTUS began by recapitulating recent policy successes:
And as a result of the decisions we made – some of which, let’s face it, were very unpopular – we are seeing hopeful signs. A little more than 1 year ago, we were losing an average of 750,000 jobs each month. Today, America is adding jobs again. One year ago, the economy was shrinking rapidly. Today, the economy is growing. In fact, we’ve seen the fastest turnaround in growth in nearly three decades. (April 22, 2010)
Then he outlined his goals for reform:
Now, first, the bill being considered in the Senate would create what we did not have before, and that is a way to protect the financial system and the broader economy and American taxpayers in the event that a large financial firm begins to fail. . . . Number two: Reform would bring new transparency to many financial markets. . . . Third, this plan would enact the strongest consumer financial protections ever. . . . Number four, the last key component of reform: These Wall Street reforms will give shareholders new power in the financial system. They will get what we call a say-on-pay, a voice with respect to the salaries and bonuses awarded to top executives. (April 22, 2010)
Taxpayer protections, transparency, consumer protections, corporate accountability – a four-point plan not wholly unlike the more general outline offered 18 months prior. With all this talk of reform, however, no matter whose party is in power, any POTUS worth his salt must come out strongly in favor of the mythical free market.
POTUS 43: But the crisis was not a failure of the free market system. And the answer is not to try to reinvent that system. It is to fix the problems we face, make the reforms we need, and move forward with the free market principles that have delivered prosperity and hope to people all across the globe. (November 17, 2008)
POTUS 44: As I said on this stage 2 years ago, I believe in the power of the free market. I believe in a strong financial sector that helps people to raise capital and get loans and invest their savings. That’s part of what has made America what it is. But a free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it. That’s what happened too often in the years leading up to this crisis. (April 22, 2010)
The moral: Don’t let the partisan squabbles of the moment distract from the essential similarities of the outcomes. As is so often the case in our passionate national disputes, politics may seem polarized, but actual government is typically very moderate, responding only when it really has to. One doesn’t reach the Oval Office by riding the flanks of ideology; one gets there by saying the right things to the right people in the right places at the right times.