The Venter in Chief

In her New York Times column Thursday, Gail Collins asked why President Obama doesn't sound angrier: "Doesn't he understand his job right now is to be the Great Venter?"

Obama knows indulging in populist anger right now is an indulgence he should avoid, and Collins of course was joking. But we know Obama didn't entirely avoid the venter-in-chief role this week, and that was a mistake.

The AIG bonus explosion is one of the most depressing episodes in recent memory, not because greedy financiers took bonuses with taxpayer dollars after running their company — and arguably the global economy — into the toilet. As the economy spirals toward something worse than the Great Depression, we are witnessing a sad failure of leadership from the White House and the U.S. Congress. Retroactive, confiscatory taxation that at best is subject to legal challenge and at worst is unconstitutional is not the way out of the long, long-term mess we are heading into.

Obama cannot — given the situation he is in — truly be angry. If he is human he is logically panicked. Bailouts were unpopular before, but now they are toxic. Meanwhile, Obama is attempting to stabilize the bank system by forming public-private partnerships that will purchase toxic assets and help rehabilitate faltering banks. The AIG debacle has sent exactly the people in private industry whom Obama needs to invest in his new arrangement running for the hills. Obama may need private equity, but the private sector doesn't need what it witnessed this week. Who wants to be the next Edward Liddy, with Financial Services Committee members frothing at the mouth and barking at you on national television as if you were a pedophile?

Is there any hope of moving beyond the AIG sideshow? The hypocrisy and double-speak from both sides of the aisle this week was breathtaking — members who knew on policy grounds not to vote for a 90 percent clawback tax did so anyway because they simply couldn't stand to be crushed by the populist-backlash bandwagon if they refused to jump aboard.

I was fascinated to receive the following perspective from a reader named Jackie in New Jersey. Take a moment to learn what she said, which I am reprinting verbatim:

I have been watching the hearing with Edward Liddy. I believe we have found the one grown up in this whole mess.

Is it possible that our congress is a dense as they appear or is this just performance art? Liddy has endlessly explained the nature of retention bonuses yet they keep talking about corporate performance, which is not necessarily relevant in a retention bonus (as anyone who has ever worked in a corporation understands). Nor do they seem capable of grasping the fact that the people involved are ones who have been put on notice that their jobs will be abolished at some point in the future. The purpose of the retention bonus is to prevent these people from immediately beginning to job hunt and leave the company in the lurch. Instead, they go on about those people who have already left on the company's schedule as if they were traitors or something and not entitled to the bonus. If these Congress members are as stupid as they appear, we are really in trouble.

Watching all of them rant at a man who is making $1/year to save this company at the government's request makes me sick. The President and Congress agreed to a clause in the stimulus package that basically recognized the presence of bonuses like these and acknowledged the fact that they should be paid. Just recently these same people told us that an 8 percent increase in annual budget and $8 billion in earmarks are so minor as to be a distraction. Now they are all "outraged" because AIG paid $160 million in bonuses of the type they approved in the stimulus package.

Don't get me wrong, this whole financial debacle makes me angry. However, I would rather have Edward Liddy leading us out of this mess than the President and the Congress who only seem intent on using our anger for their own political purposes. He seems to be the one honest man in the bunch and the only one showing any leadership. His plan for AIG makes sense and they appear to be making progress. I only hope that our government representatives do not interfere in a manner that will jeopardize its possible success.



WHO WANTS TO TALK ABOUT FIXING BANKS INSTEAD OF SCRATCHING BONUSES? Ask A.B. returns Monday, March 23. Please join my weekly video Q&A by sending your questions and comments to askab@thehill.com. Thank you.