Should Obama Transform Into An Economic Populist?

In an interview with Bloomberg this week, President Obama resisted directly criticizing the bonuses of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs CEOs, noting that they were "savvy businessmen," but adding that Wall Street bonus structure deserves rethinking in light of the economic meltdown. John Judis parses Obama's answers and is sickened. I'm not. Let's hash this out:

Here's what I find the most important exchange of the interview:

BBW: Let's talk bonuses for a minute. Lloyd Blankfein: $9 million. Jamie Dimon: $17 million. Now, those were in stock and less than what some had expected. But are those numbers O.K.?

Obama: First of all, I know both those guys. They are very savvy businessmen. And I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system. I do think that the compensation packages that we have seen over the last decade, at least, have not matched up always to performance...

On the merits, I see nothing wrong with that answer, as I elaborated here. But Judis pounces:

Overall, the impression the interview leaves is of a president surprisingly oblivious to the fury that is sweeping the nation. Obama has occasionally attempted to speak to it, or read speeches that address it. But this interview shows that, in the choice between Main Street and Wall Street, his natural inclinations lie more toward one side--and it ain't Main Street.

I think this -- and other liberals' -- anger over the interview is a fig leaf. The interview doesn't matter. This is part of a much larger debate about whether Obama would be more effective if he breathed more fire -- if he pushed reconciliation on health care, made recess appointments to circumvent the Republicans' holds, directly criticized GOP leadership more pointedly, twisted moderate Democrat arms "like LBJ would've!", and, yes, took on Wall Street excesses and abuses with great vengeance and furious anger. That's not the guy we elected, but he's the guy liberals still dream about waking up to.

So the important question is: Would that Obama -- the "I'm feeling your pain, and mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore" guy -- be more successful? It is very difficult to know. The public still likes the president. More celerity on health care might have helped Democrats beat the ticking time bomb of Massachusetts, but an overly partisan White House might have sacrificed the trust mantle to Republicans. A good point I've read about this interview is that you don't see the GOP criticizing it because, really, there's not room for a conservative to criticize the idea that bankers are smart, success is often earned, but Wall Street bonus culture could use tweaking.

I understand that liberals are upset about the lack of smoke pouring out of the president's nostrils, and maybe they're right after all. But the interview sounds to me like the Obama we elected: A left of center guy thinking through complicated issues out-loud.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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