Barack Obama was “incredulous” at what he was hearing, said one of his top economic advisers. The president had spent his first year in office overseeing the biggest government bailout of the financial industry in American history. Together with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, he had kept Wall Street afloat on a trillion-dollar tide of taxpayer money. But the banks were barely lending, and the economy was still mired in high unemployment. And now, in December 2009, the holiday news had started to filter out of the canyons of lower Manhattan: Wall Street’s year-end bonuses would actually be larger in 2009 than they had been in 2007, the year prior to the catastrophe. “Wait, let me get this straight,”Obama said at a White House meeting that December. “These guys are reserving record bonuses because they’re profitable, and they’re profitable only because we rescued them.”
It was as if nothing had changed. Even after a Depression-size crash, the banks were not altering their behavior. The president was being perceived, more and more, as a man on the wrong side of an incendiary issue.
And so, prodded forward by Vice President Joe Biden—the product of a working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa.—the president began to consider getting tougher on Wall Street. “We kept revisiting it,” said the economic adviser (who recounted details of the meetings only on condition of anonymity). One big proposal the White House hadn’t adopted was Paul Volcker’s idea of barring commercial banks from indulging in heavy risk taking and “proprietary” trading. In Volcker’s view, America’s major banks, which enjoy federal guarantees on their deposits, had to stop putting taxpayer money at risk by acting like hedge funds. This had become a grand passion for Volcker, a living legend renowned for crushing inflation 30 years before as Fed chairman. He had long been skeptical of financial deregulation. Beyond the ATM, Volcker asked, what new banking products had really added to economic growth? Exhibit one for this argument was derivatives, trillions of dollars in “side bets” placed by Wall Street traders. “I wish somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy,” he barked at one conference.
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