The Wall Street Journal editors take the president to task for jumping on the bandwagon to excoriate AIG, invoking the tax code as a weapon to get back the bonuses, and generally scaring the living daylights out of any institution foolish enough to accept TARP money. They conclude:
Reviving a financial system is a long process that requires a combination of capital support, workout ability and discipline for mistakes. The public has to believe the end result will be a better, sturdier system in return for taxpayer support, while at the same time being assured that gamblers aren’t saved from their own mistakes.
If this balance is beyond the ability of Mr. Obama’s current economic team, he needs a better team. The worst mistake he can make is to deflect attention away from government’s mistakes by joining the attack on the very bankers he needs to lead an economic recovery. That’s how a deep recession becomes a Depression.
All of this raises the question: what became of that first class temperament? That was Obama’s selling point for many voters and prominent pundits. He was uncommonly calm and thoughtful, not given to getting rattled or angry. He’d be a cool character under stress. So much for that theory.
What happened is clear: his inept Treasury Secretary bungled the simple task of overseeing AIG. Once the bonuses saw the light of day the president wigged out and went into campaign mode. That’s the routine where you vilify the other side, assert your own moral superiority, and propose a series of programmatic “solutions” (“More regulation!” “Tax it all!”) that don’t get at the real issue (i.e. the government shouldn’t be managing complex companies). There is, in all of this, little trace of the qualities his supporters divined through scraps of information and plenty of wishful thinking. As Michael Goodwin writes:
The bonuses are disgusting, but there was a Keystone Kops element to the White House reaction. Its yes-we-can, no-we-can’t act on canceling the payoffs was clumsy, especially when the President said he wanted the bonuses stopped. It made for good sound bites before an aide called the whole thing off, saying it was too late, legal contracts, yada, yada.
So incompetence is disguised by ginned up anger. Instead of that fine “temperament,” there is a total absence of executive skill here — in selecting Geithner, allowing him to flounder (and then ludicrously praising him), dribbling out details to explain how this occurred, throwing out contradictory positions on the administration’s ability to stop the bonuses, and finally encouraging Congress to go after AIG and its executives through the tax code. It’s almost like he’s never managed a large enterprise or handled a full-blown crisis. You’d think he had never been subjected to critical media. Oh, wait.
Perhaps experience matters more than we thought and “temperament” only gets you so far. As Mary Katherine Ham observes, the president — having made a perfect hash out of AIG and provided fodder for those who contend he’s in over his head –now goes on a campaign swing. Yes, “Too bad we need a president.”