President Obama’s meeting Friday with the nation’s top bankers was an unusual moment. As someone who covers the White House, I can say that there was a unique sense of anticipation among the press corps as we waited for the bankers to emerge from their meeting with the president. And there were a lot of reporters who stood and waited outside the West Wing for around an hour.
I think a great deal of this was because financial bosses are not the type of folks that we political reporters get a crack at often, and also because they seem more elusive and inaccessible to the press than our top elected leaders often do. Throw that in with the general national mood of outrage at taxpayer-funded bailouts for these “too big to fail” fat cats and there was quite a buzz Friday. Predictably, the bankers got swarmed as they walked out of the West Wing.
I was reading Ron Chernow’s “House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” this weekend and was reminded, reading a passage early in the book, of how Wall Street has often found itself the scourge of America.
After the Panic of 1873, Chernow writes that Wall Street “was popularly seen as the street of sin, a place responsible for corrupting the manners and morals of a pristine frontier nation.”
“Not for the last time, America turned against Wall Street with puritanical outrage and a sense of offended innocence,” he writes.
On Friday, the bankers came out to the TV cameras prepared to do their best spin job. But the rhetoric was at times almost comical. Here’s an exchange I had with Richard Davis, head of U.S. Bank. He starts off by denying that bonus pay was brought up in the meeting with Obama, which the White House publicly disagreed with. Another CEO also told me privately that executive pay was one of the main topics, and it’s since been widely reported by me and others that Obama asked the bankers to rein in the bonuses.
DAVIS: Executive compensation was not part of the discussion. We appreciate the fact that that’s a winnowing point of interest for the press and it’s certainly something we’re sensistive to. We understand there have been some optics that have been very negative. We apologize for that because it’s not something that this industry supports or wants for the press to pick up on. Instead we talked about the opportunities to move the country forward and really working together. We’re changing the dialogue. And we’re looking forward to giving you new opportunities to celebrate people’s special stories of success and their opportunities of getting back on their feet, and the recovery that we are much a part of and committed to all of you of making that the centerpiece of our focus in the next 60 days.
ME: Do you feel like the public’s outrage is justified over some of these bonuses and just the whole loss of a lot of their income and retirement accounts?
DAVIS: We’re not surprised by the public outrage at all. We appreciate the fact that the whole story hasn’t always been told completely, but we appreciate that and we are responsible in some part for some of the sound bites that have come out along the way, so we take ownership for that but we’re going to move forward to give you better things to write about, to talk about and better stories to show what’s happening in the great recovery.
ME: Is soundbites the only thing you’re responsible for?
DAVIS: Not soundbites at all. Soundbites of giving you the facts to talk about something positive, something productive, people in new houses, new buildings being built, new companies starting up and hiring new people. We’re doing that every day but we haven’t done a very good job of telling you that.
Of course, the fact that nearly 3 million people have lost their jobs in the last four months might have something to do with the bad news as well.
Here’s video of the exchange:
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times