Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
Late last week, I heard the news about J.P. Morgan's staggering $2 billion in losses on the same day I read Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article about the death of financial reform and Nick Confessore's New York Times Magazine piece about President Obama's fundraising on Wall Street. After reading these two articles in conjunction with the J.P. Morgan news, I could only come to one conclusion: it's impossible to "reform" Wall Street if the president is dependent on the financial sector to bankroll his re-election campaign. The banks can be Obama's friend or his enemy, but right now they can't be both.
That's why Obama should follow the lead of Elizabeth Warren and make Wall Street accountability a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. That would mean an end to the lavish fundraisers held by the titans of high finance (like the one last night), toughening and rigorously enforcing financial reform legislation and aggressively prosecuting Wall Street malfeasance. The banks would no doubt protest even louder than usual, but the public would heartily applaud. If the money dries up, so be it.
Obama stands the best shot at getting re-elected by making the election a choice between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, with Mitt Romney as the unabashed defender of the 21st century robber barons. It's easy to forget that the 1 percent, while overwhelmingly powerful in our political system, are by nature a tiny minority of voters. Thus, Obama's core message should be about ensuring fairness and expanding opportunity for the 99 percent. But he won't have the credibility to make such a message stick unless he jettisons what has been the albatross around his administration's neck — the closeness between Washington and Wall Street.
Yesterday the Obama campaign unveiled a powerful new ad attacking Romney's vulture capitalism at Bain Capital. Yet on that same night, Obama attended a fundraiser hosted by the president of the world's largest private equity firm, the Blackstone Group. "Obama Hits Romney on Bain as He Raises Wall Street Money," read a Bloomberg News headline. Republican gleefully amplified the story, branding Obama as an opportunistic hypocrite. Obama can't afford another five months of headlines like that. Only by making clear to the public which side he's on can the president consistently and convincingly paint Romney as Wall Street's best friend. (Romney's top five contributors are employees of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse.)
Some Obama supporters will no doubt argue that Obama needs the money from wherever he can get it. Yet forgoing Wall Street cash is less of a risk for Obama than one might think. Though the president raised nearly $16 million from the securities and investment sector in 2008, he has collected less than $3 million from them in 2012. Romney and his Super PAC have outraised the president by ten to one on Wall Street (see here and here). Rather than trying to make up that gap, the Obama campaign should use that disparity to its advantage by asking Obama's legion of small donors to make up the difference. That's an ambitious but by no means impossible goal — the president has already collected 53 percent of his campaign cash from those giving under $200 (compared to just 13 percent for Romney). A declaration of independence from Wall Street would encourage many more people to donate to Obama's campaign.
Obama's failure to channel the public's populist anger at the banks in 2010 cost his party dearly at the polls. Much of the electorate saw Washington and Wall Street as the same entity, largely as a result of the bailouts. Republicans are working hard to replay that theme in 2012. "Obama won't admit to supporting Wall Street," says a new ad from the conservative American Future Fund running in eight swing states. "But Wall Street sure supports President Obama." The fact that the banks have shifted their support to Romney this time around is a distinction lost on many Americans, who see both parties as wholly reliant on Wall Street cash — and with good reason. As Senator Dick Durbin famously remarked in 2009, "the banks...are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."
Obama, even if he wanted to, couldn't change this dynamic in one election — that's why we need to repeal the Citizens United decision and institute publicly financed elections. The president, however, is squandering a powerful wedge issue against Romney by not campaigning against the Citizens United decision and staying silent on the corrupting influence of big money in our political system. Demanding accountability from Wall Street would set a powerful precedent by Obama and free him up to pursue an ambitious second-term agenda of justice for Main Street if he's re-elected.