Even if the recession is over as far as Wall Street is concerned, it sounds like the 1% still feel deeply wounded by a nation that fails to recognize their true value.
Nicholas Confessore describes the Obama campaign’s struggle to collect money from those who were once the president’s biggest financial backers.
One day in late October, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, slipped into the Regency Hotel in New York and walked up to a second-floor meeting room reserved by his aides. More than 20 of Obama’s top donors and fund-raisers, many of them from the financial industry, sat in leather chairs around a granite conference table.
Messina told them he had a problem: New York City and its suburbs, Obama’s top source of money in 2008, were behind quota. He needed their help bringing the financial community back on board.
For the next hour, the donors relayed to Messina what their friends had been saying. They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators.
Messina politely pushed back. It’s not the president’s fault that Americans are still upset with Wall Street, he told them, and given the public’s mood, the administration’s rhetoric had been notably restrained.
One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.
“Most people in the financial world,” a top Obama donor later told me, “do not understand how most of America feels about them.” But they think they understand how the president’s inner circle feels about them. “This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years,” the donor said. “And it shows.”
Historically, Wall Street, like many large and heavily regulated industries, has been Republican in its politics but pragmatic when it comes to political giving. For most of the last two decades, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the financial world has split its donations between the two parties, usually favoring Republicans but also giving generously to the Democratic lawmakers who dominate New York.
Even if they didn’t agree with Obama on everything in 2008, many in the financial industry looked at him then and saw a reflection of their imagined best selves: brainy, self-made, above the mewlings and histrionics of partisan politics. He seemed like the kind of Democrat even white-shoe Republican bankers and libertarian hedge-funders could get behind, and many of them did. “There is a growing belief on Wall Street that Barack Obama has the capacity to lead us out of this wilderness,” Jim Cramer, the financial journalist, wrote several weeks before Election Day.
Obama far outraised his Republican rival, John McCain, on Wall Street — around $16 million to $9 million — and Goldman Sachs executives sent Obama more money than employees of any other company in the world. But four years, one recession and a host of battles — over financial regulation and the nomination of Elizabeth Warren, over Dodd-Frank and the Buffett Rule — have taken their toll. Some on Wall Street are apoplectic. One former supporter, Dan Loeb, compared Obama to Nero; the president’s enemies insinuated worse. In 2010, Stephen A. Schwarzman, a founder of Blackstone, said that an Obama proposal to raise taxes on “carried interest” — the main source of income for most private-equity managers — reminded him of “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”