Burnt buildings were still smoldering when Bill Clinton toured South Central Los Angeles, the historic center of the city’s Black community, in early May 1992. The presidential candidate had flown cross-country from the East Coast as the city was being consumed by waves of unrest following the acquittal of four police officers who had savagely beat Rodney King the year before.
By this point in the Democratic primary, Clinton had effectively sewn up the Democratic nomination, so he used the visit to contrast his vision for urban America with that of George H. W. Bush, the president he would unseat that November. Meeting with community groups and religious leaders, Clinton wasn’t focused on massive new government programs, but rather a set of ideas that hadn’t been discussed much in national politics: policies to encourage the flow of more private investment and lending into neighborhoods long starved of it. “If you don’t enable people to borrow the money to get into businesses in the neighborhoods where they live, it’s hard to have any fundamental change,” he said that day, beside charred and crumbled buildings on Vermont Avenue.
Over Clinton’s two terms, one of the aides who helped translate that sentiment into policy—groundbreaking policy, at that—was a young lawyer named Michael Barr, who returned to government about a decade later to serve in a top Treasury Department position under Barack Obama. Now Barr is, by multiple accounts, a serious contender to become President Joe Biden’s nominee for comptroller of the currency, the powerful regulator who supervises most large banks and the majority of assets in the banking system. But his nomination has become an unexpected flash point in the ongoing tussle between progressives and centrists over the direction of Biden’s presidency and the Democratic Party more broadly.