- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009


Will an anxious public and heat-seeking pundits give President Obama enough elbow room to do his job? As he tries to free up financial markets and turn our sputtering economy around, nervous Nellies on the right and left are yelping like children in the back seat: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” Nagging doesn’t get us there any faster, kids.

Yet, judging by the polls, the public has been more patient than Mr. Obama’s political rivals or the bipartisan array of anxious and angry media pundits and other experts. For now, most voters appear to understand that the global financial crisis is not going to be cured in a couple of months.

And Wall Street gave a strong response Monday to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s plan to get bank money flowing again. Although it is dangerous to read too much into any single day on the stock market, an “up” ticker does give an indication of Wall Street optimism. In this case, the glimmer of hope comes mainly because Mr. Geithner finally released the details that he and Mr. Obama promised weeks ago. The stock market hates uncertainty. The embattled Mr. Geithner’s job appears to be safe for now, at least.

But the torches and pitchforks of populist rage still burn, as official Washington tries to divert the torchbearers’ attention to scapegoats other than themselves.

Old-timers and history students knew we were in treacherous waters when House Republican Leader John A. Boehner uttered a mantra from the Watergate era: “Who knew what and when did they know it?”

He was referring to a major reason for public rage, the outlandish $165 million in bonuses paid to a few hundred executives at American International Group Inc. (AIG) - in a division of the company that lost $100 billion!

That’s the teetering insurance giant into which taxpayers have poured about $170 billion in aid with another $30 billion to come. One can only wonder whether the executives would have received bigger bonuses if they lost $200 billion.

Yet it is difficult for congressional Republicans to make much use of this executive compensation issue, since they have a long record of opposing efforts to put the brakes on skyrocketing paydays for top executives - as average American CEO pay has soared to almost 350 times the salary of the average American worker.

When the United Auto Workers is asked to make sacrifices in exchange for government help to its ailing industry, Americans might reasonably ask: Where’s the sacrifice from Wall Street’s needy high-rollers? Legislation already has been proposed in Congress to give stockholders more power in judging how much their chief executive officers are worth. Maybe the current crisis will lead to the sort of corporate accountability we can believe in.

AIG, unaccustomed to public accountability of this magnitude, appeared to be getting the message. Fifteen of the firm’s top 20 employees have agreed to pay their bonuses back in full, which amounts to about $50 million, said New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. Mr. Cuomo hoped to recoup much of the roughly $80 million in bonuses from U.S. employees. The rest of the bonuses that were paid out March 15 went primarily to foreigners, he said.

That won’t sit well with a lot of American taxpayers, either, but it’s how money works. Our financial markets are intertwined internationally. As long as everyone seemed to be making money, few people raised a lot of questions as to how real all of the “value” was. Now that the bubbles have collapsed, out come the pitchforks.

That means the AIG issue still poses grave dangers for Team Obama. The very notion that the president might have allowed taxpayer dollars to slip through to corporate incompetents or swindlers is dangerous in these days of bipartisan populist rage.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles and instant “Who won the week?” political analysis, Mr. Obama doesn’t have the traditional “100 days” of honeymoon time. That’s so last century. It is still true, however, that politics is 90 percent perceptions. Whether he’s getting immediate results or not, the president has to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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