The truth is that $450 million is just a drop -- an acidy, splashy drop -- in the bucket. The recovery of the American economy can survive the legal formalism, or greed, of AIG. The political system, in contrast, seems to be momentarily paralyzed by it. And that's ok. AIG, a company that most Americans still don't understand, has become a symbol of what caused the current crisis and now a focal point of populist anger about its resolution.
The emotional core of American populism is political resentment. During the major populist frissons of American history - Jacksonian-era democracy, the Grange movement against railroad monopolies, the urban social reform movements, the type of resentment has swayed between two poles; at times, large segments of society arrayed themselves the moneyed interests who had access to capital and political power. At other times, they seemed to resent the fact that these interests used their privileged means and positions to manipulate government to their advantage. (There is a third variant -- conservative pseudo-populism, which takes aim at the country's cultural elite - but which is not important for the sake of this discussion.)
Today's Financial Collapse Populism is fairly easy to define: Americans, believing as always in their ability to get ahead by virtue of their talent and effort, are angry that the culprits of the economic downturn refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and more importantly, refuse to share the pain, both financially and symbolically. What worries the Obama administration is that the public will blame the government for failing to ameliorate this political inequality; indeed, how naked were the emperors this weekend as they admitted that there's really nothing they can do to prevent AIG from fulfilling its legal obligations to the derivative traders?