As Joe Nocera reminds us today in the Times, “Not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail. . . .What is also true, and which is every bit as corrosive to our belief in the rule of law, is that the Justice Department has instead taken after the smallest of small fry — and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act.” Nocera goes on to point out that “the last time the federal government went after corporate crooks” was when the Justice Department vigorously prosecuted the executives of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Nocera asks. “George W. Bush has turned out to be tougher on corporate crooks than Barack Obama.” Yes, amazing indeed.
Whatever explanation is eventually offered for this administration’s failure to prosecute high executives–and one very much wants to know what Tim Geithner or Larry Summers or for that matter Eric Holder, the sherpa of the Marc Rich pardon contributed to this discussion–this much is clear: if President Obama loses this election, the failure to hold financial titans legally, financially and morally responsible for this financial meltdown will be the factor that will have cost him re-election. His failure to channel voter anger in 2009 and 2010 cost him an enormous amount of political support and opened the door to the Tea Party movement. And now his failure to find people to blame for our predicament means that he has left himself wide open for the voters to put the blame on him. Even when mounting heads on pikes ameliorates not an ounce of suffering, it comforts the common people to see evidence that king is working on the problem.
It’s an odd strategy that the president has chosen. Obama’s team is trying to sully Mitt Romney through Bain, although Bain, for any and all the vulture capitalist sins it may have committed, is not at all connected to our current predicament. Meanwhile, Jamie Dimon loses another couple billion in a risky bet, and he still sits on the board of the New York Federal Reserve.
It’s a hard thing to swallow, but we need to face it: the president has shown himself to possess the courage to order Navy Seals to kill Osama bin Laden and to use drones to obliterate suspected terrorists, but he hasn’t shown that he has the courage to look in the eyes of the bankers and financiers who are his cultural peers and who have contributed to his campaigns, and to tell them “We are coming after Too Big To Fail, and we are coming after you.”