The Corner

Obama’s Two Financial Crises

Why is Barack Obama president of the United States? Media coddling? A weak McCain campaign? A strong, if dishonest, effort by Obama to present himself as a pragmatic centrist? All of these things played a role, but the advent of the subprime crisis at the height of the 2008 presidential campaign was the decisive factor. No drama Obama responded well, while McCain seemed over his head.

As America teeters on the brink of a second financial crisis, I think back to 2008, and the irony of a suprime mortgage fiasco propelling to the presidency a man who’d spent a career abetting the folks who’d caused the crisis to begin with. Despite releasing an Internet ad on ACORN, Obama, and the subprime meltdown, the McCain campaign was unwilling or unable to pursue the issue. The Clinton administration’s gutting of credit standards in the name of fair housing, in close cooperation with ACORN and Fannie Mae, laid the foundations of the mortgage crisis of 2008. Yet in the second presidential debate, McCain did nothing to combat Obama’s claims that the crisis was strictly a product of under-regulation. In the third debate, Obama flat-out lied about his longstanding ties to ACORN. The media, of course, let him get away with it.

While many conservatives know the real story well, the country as a whole has still barely heard it. The important new book by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner has begun to break the fuller truth about the 2008 financial meltdown into public awareness, yet even there the focus is on Fannie Mae, while the ACORN connection is given short shrift. Fannie Mae would never have gone south if ACORN hadn’t pulled it into the subprime business in the first place. ACORN’s national banking campaign was coordinated by Obama’s close political allies at the group’s Chicago office, which Obama was heavily funding through two foundations at the time.

While I lay all this out in Radical-in-Chief, I keep thinking back to a story I didn’t have the time or space to tell in detail. ACORN’s first big target in Chicago was Bell Federal Savings and Loan Association. While poring over the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, I ran across the extensive preparation ACORN Chicago made for that first battle, including lots of correspondence with Bell Federal itself.

What struck me reading over the documents was Bell Federal’s naive confidence in its position. They knew that they’d treated all their mortgage customers the same, regardless of race–in fact they were proud of this–and Bell rightly insisted that undercutting credit standards in the name of supposed fairness was the surest way to financial disaster. Little did Bell Federal suspect the assault about to be launched against it–the massive campaign to portray it as a nest of evil, racist capitalists, with the usual bogus statistical claims that anything less than total equality of result meant discrimination.

True, the Bush administration did far too little to challenge the bad credit practices first solidified by Fannie Mae under Clinton administration pressure. And yes, Wall Street did far too much to exploit the irresponsible subprime regime of its day, leading to disaster in 2008. But responsible capitalism didn’t go down without a fight. I think of Bell Federal’s naive and noble–but doomed–resistance to ACORN, and Fannie Mae’s equally bitter battle to hold ACORN at bay–well before the horror story recounted by Morgenson and Rosner played out. It took a lot of heavy lifting by ACORN and its supporters to break down years of prudent business practice, embodied in the credit standards all sane bankers once rightly insisted on. Only after those standards were compromised did we reap the whirlwind.

Obama was intimately familiar with the battle to undermine America’s credit standards, and in full philosophical sympathy with it. It took a one-two punch of Alinskyite intimidation and federal regulatory pressure to create the preconditions for the subprime crisis of 2008, and Obama was on board for all of it. Yet he managed to convince the country, with barely a peep to the contrary from McCain, that the real problem was the lack of regulation.

Now we are flirting with a second crisis, brought on by overspending, debt, and excessive regulation. Dodd-Frank, a banking bill named for Barney Frank, another abettor of the Fannie Mae fiasco, depresses business. As the head of Americans for Financial Reform, one of Obama’s most important stealth-socialist community organizing mentors, Heather Booth, was the key lobbyist for Dodd-Frank. Exactly the same sort of leftism that laid the foundations for the first financial crisis is at the root of the second. The collapse of the European socialism that long served as a model for Obama’s organizing colleagues has only compounded the problem.

Yet Obama still struggles to pin his problems on Bush–that is, to return to the arguments about the origins of the financial crisis that worked for him in 2008. Those arguments were bogus to begin with. To this day, Obama hasn’t been called on it.

If the economy tanks again, Obama is finished. Yet if it recovers just a bit, the 2012 campaign will be a struggle between two accounts of the origins of our economic troubles: was Bush or Obama at fault? Conservatives may not want to hear it, but the “Bush did it” narrative still carries weight with the public. True, Obama will find it tremendously difficult to win reelection by campaigning against his predecessor. But he is going to try. That’s why the story of Obama’s two financial crises is still worth telling.


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