On to financial reform

Americans are angry at Wall Street, holding the big banks responsible for the recession and demanding action on financial reform to forestall more job loss. For most Americans, financial reform is about jobs.

In a poll we recently conducted for the Pew Financial Reform Project, together with our Republican colleagues at Ayres, McHenry & Associates (though I take sole responsibility for the conclusions here), a 41 percent plurality blame big Wall Street banks and other companies for the recession — even more than the 37 percent who place primary responsibility on bad decisions by the government.


It is therefore no wonder that 65 percent of Americans harbor unfavorable views of Wall Street, while just 23 percent are favorable. Those nearly 3-to-1 unfavorable views are indicative of the hostility Americans feel toward Big Finance.

But financial reform implicates the future as well as the past. A stunning 74 percent believe there is at least a 50-50 chance of another financial crisis in the next three years. Thus, the demand for quick action is intense. An overwhelming 79 percent think it is important for Congress to reform the financial system now. That makes financial reform a higher priority to more voters than reforming education, immigration, Social Security and even healthcare.

This demand for financial reform remains strong even when the issue is pitted directly against other priorities. Given a choice between Congress and the president undertaking financial reform or focusing their time on “more important priorities like jobs, healthcare and Afghanistan,” Americans choose action on financial reform now by a 59 percent-33 percent margin.

Support for reform is robust. Without any information about the contents of the bill, voters favor reform by a 40-29 percent margin. The large number of undecideds (31 percent) stems from the fact that nearly half of voters admit to knowing little or nothing about the bill currently under discussion. Among those who claim to know at least “some” about the legislation, “content-less” reform garners a 50-35 percent margin of support.

After hearing a neutral description of the bill’s key elements, an overwhelming 69 percent favor reform, while just 25 percent oppose it. Independents favor the bill by a 40-point margin, while Republicans back it by 20 points.

Even after voters are exposed to an array of arguments against reform, as well as arguments in favor, it retains the support of 61 percent of voters, whereas just 29 percent oppose the bill.

When each element is broken down for the American people, every single one enjoys majority support. Voters are most likely to support “giving consumers better information about financial products and services,” which 86 percent favor. Other provisions, such as requiring financial firms to tell regulators and investors more about their activities (82 percent), ensuring banks have a way to go out of business without taking other firms down (81 percent) and establishing a way to monitor the financial system for early signs of trouble (83 percent) receive similar levels of support.

 Tougher regulations to limit the ability of companies to take big financial risks are supported by 70 percent, and 65 percent want to prevent banks from trading in stocks and bonds for their own account. Sixty-four percent would enact new rules to limit the size of financial firms.

Voters will be unhappy if Congress fails to enact financial reform. Under that scenario, 46 percent of Americans would feel less favorable toward their member of Congress (versus 17 percent more favorable), and 40 percent would be more likely to vote against their member’s reelection (versus 18 percent more likely to vote for).

Americans want financial reform enacted now because they believe it is a necessary prerequisite to preventing future job losses — and in this climate, no member should be seen as putting more jobs at risk.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.