- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010


President Obama came to the White House promising change. He pledged bipartisanship, transparency and broad-based cooperation in a town that lacked all three.

As it turns out, he didn’t carry through on any of them, cooperation in particular. And that shortcoming could be his downfall.

The president has tried occasionally to be a conciliator. His “beer summit” on the South Lawn was a promising start.

But that kumbaya moment quickly devolved into a long series of confrontations. He has made a habit of selecting “bad guys” and hammering them hard in his public utterances. He also keeps a list of friends whom he showers with compliments and special deals.

Picking sides is nothing new in politics, but the way Mr. Obama has gone about it has undercut his fundamental appeal.

His latest target is the banks - big banks in particular. He wants to impose a fee on major financial institutions that would raise $90 billion over 10 years. The reason for the levy is contrived.

Mr. Obama claims the fee is needed to make sure banks pay back the money the federal government lent them during last year’s financial meltdown. In fact, the banks are obliged to pay back that money with interest, and many already have done so.

Banks that haven’t returned the money are still feeling the pain of world-wide recession and are, therefore, the last companies Washington should want to burden with extra costs. Economic recovery depends on banks’ lending freely again; saddling them with a hefty tax only makes that harder.

But the president saw a chance to deliver a populist appeal and stuck the pitchfork in. Banks are primed for such vilification because many of them have rebounded impressively and are shelling out billions in bonuses to top executives and recording profits of billions more.

It’s easy to demagogue Wall Street fat cats in prosperous times. During hard times like these, it’s a layup. So Mr. Obama took the expedient route and proposed a “responsibility fee” that will be difficult for even stalwart Wall Street backers to oppose.

His decision is part of a pattern. He has tried repeatedly to inflict pain on the moneyed interests that average Americans can readily be incited to resent.

Indeed, Mr. Obama has chosen his enemies with care. During the election of 2008, he routinely bludgeoned health insurers and drug companies. He stopped berating the pharmaceuticals when they pledged millions to back his top priority, health reform. The insurers remain a convenient whipping boy, disliked as they are by anyone who’s ever had a claim rejected.

Lobbyists also have been on the president’s bad-boy roster. And why not? Almost no one has sympathy for people who are paid to represent narrow interests before the U.S. government.

Other groups and industries have or will soon feel this same populist wrath. If the cold winter continues to push up oil and gasoline prices, oil companies are sure to report massive profits, which, in turn, will lead to renewed calls for a windfall profits tax.

To the extent the Obama administration opens offshore sites to oil and gas drilling, royalty payments also could be beefed up by opportunistic Obama allies.

The drug companies also are likely to return to the bad list as soon as health reform is resolved. Any group that is rich and generally disliked will almost certainly be eyed for a tax increase by the president.

From a purely fiscal point of view, this makes ample sense. Annual trillion-dollar budget deficits will hang around the neck of the central government for years, thanks to last year’s drunken-sailor anti-recession spending. Mr. Obama and Congress have little choice but to try to find ways to stanch that torrent of red ink in any way they can.

Somebody is going to have to pay the freight, and why not start with those who can afford it and are politically weak?

The problem is that Mr. Obama has attacked these groups so harshly that voters are reminded of the old Washington they dislike so much. Picking and choosing among interest groups, even when the president selects interests that his constituents would like him to attack, is business as usual in Washington - the business he was elected to excise.

Americans really do want Washington decision-makers to get along. When the president goes after any one group in such a vengeful way, voters legitimately wonder whether they might be next.

The president also has made the mistake of giving lavish benefits to the people he needs. The health bill’s Medicaid giveaway to Nebraska is seen correctly as another element of what’s wrong with Washington.

Mr. Obama has erred in pitting interest against interest. He will wind up the loser if he continues down that path.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is president of BGR Public Relations, a Washington Times columnist and a Fox News contributor.



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