A few months back, before all the sit-ins and other activity, spurred in great part by friends and family back home (I am from Nebraska), I was asking a friend in the administration about the Keystone Pipeline issue. They told me that it really wasn't all that important a policy decision and that it would be made by technical staffers in the State Department with the president playing no role in it. Reading between the lines, I was getting clear signals it was a done deal. And now, for at least another year, it's dead.
On another front, in December, I was inquiring of a very senior Senate staffer about the SOPA/PIPA issue, saying that while I certainly understood the need to do something about intellectual property piracy issues, that I was hearing from some friends in the netroots world that there was some overkill in these bills, and that perhaps senators ought to slow down and listen to the concerns different folks had. I was told that the train had left the station, and it was an unstoppable done deal. And now SOPA is dead as well.
Here's another one: in December, people who care about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were in open despair about ever getting the administration to move on recess appointing Rich Cordray to head the bureau. It seemed like the White House and Harry Reid just didn't want to pick the fight and force the issue. But pick the fight they did, and today Rich Cordray truly is acting like the new sheriff in town, taking on exploitive bankers right and left.
As Bob Dylan would put it, the times they are a-changin'. There's a storm outside and it's raging, baby. We really are shaking their windows and rattling their walls. Done deals are not getting done. Dead appointments are acting like Lazarus and rising from the dead. The establishment is getting very, very nervous. And grassroots activists, from the occupiers to the netroots to those chaining themselves to the White House fence or sitting in at the Wisconsin Capitol last year, are shaking and rattling things all over. I noted today where the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, former Sen. Chris Dodd, told the New York Times,
"This is altogether a new effect," ... comparing the online movement to the Arab Spring. He could not remember seeing "an effort that was moving with this degree of support change this dramatically" in the last four decades, he added.
He called for a summit between the Silicon Valley and Hollywood powers that be, but given that it was really the netroots that derailed this bill with no money and no high-paid lobbyists making their case, I'd strongly suggest to Sen. Dodd that they include some representatives of those netroots activists in the room, because the powers that be could come to terms and the netroots still could blow things up.
Progressive activists should feel incredibly good about all they have accomplished in the last year, and should feel good as well that President Obama -- even if it is sometimes more slowly or reluctantly than we would like -- is understanding that on a range of issues, it is politically smart of him to be aligned with these grassroots movement. But it is also no time to pat ourselves on the back: over the next 72 hours, an enormous issue will probably get resolved that will be the biggest single thing that will determine whether the dead housing market, as well as the broader economy, will get a boost that will bring it to life: the bank settlement deal. How this issue gets resolved not only will have a massive impact on the economy, it will go a very long ways in whether the President can credibly run for re-election as the guy who took on Wall Street and held them accountable when the chips were down.
The deal will be announced on Monday. Here's what to look for:
-First, and most importantly, does the administration commit to a comprehensive investigation into the misconduct that led to the collapse of the economy and partner with the likes of aggressive AG's like Eric Schneiderman on such an investigation? Does it have adequate staffing and a clear mandate to fully and broadly investigate the big Wall Street companies that clearly were engaged in all kinds of fraudulent activity in the years that led up to the financial panic of 2008? Will the bankers be brought to justice? If a bigger investigation is launched, given all the stinking dirty laundry the bankers have, we are almost certain to get a much bigger, better deal in the not too distant future, because their lawyers will tell them to cave.
-Second, on the settlement over the robo-signing perjuries, is the release granted the banks the narrowest possible release, or does it let the bankers off the hook for a wide range of fraudulent behavior? A narrow release allows the AGs that want to do more investigation, as well as any task force set up, to do a far more sweeping investigation in the coming months.
-Third, is the principal reduction that is supposed to come from this settlement have specifically enforceable timelines? Do the banks have to come up with the money by a given date, into a specified fund, or does this look like the disastrous HAMP program that was left to the banks' discretion and therefore helped only a tiny fraction of homeowners?
-Fourth, how much money are we talking about anyway? I want, and the country needs, several hundred billion in mortgage writedowns. We won't get that out of this settlement, but we might out of a broader tougher investigation. However even for this first step, the idea of getting just $20 or $25 billion, as has been leaked to various reporters, would be a real disappointment. Knowing that there was almost certainly more to come, I could be happy with more like $50 billion.
I have long been convinced that the health of our economy over the next few years, whether it will be a Japan's lost decade kind of scenario or whether we fix the black hole of the housing market so that the entire economy can start to move again, will rest greatly on how this decision goes down. In part because of its effect on the economy, and in part because Obama's best chance of winning by far is to run against Bain Capital and the predators on Wall Street, I also believe this decision will be the biggest decider in terms of whether Obama wins re-election. So if you care about any of that, or if you just care about holding Wall Street accountable, let the White House know what you think this weekend: sign this petition, call the White House switchboard (202-456-1414) or campaign headquarters this weekend, let them know what you think. People on the inside of these negotiations tell me things are still on the knife's edge, and you can make a difference.
I will close by noting that, as I wrote about in my book The Progressive Revolution, positive change in America happens because of the combination of big progressive movements and Presidents open to that change. The last few victories progressives have won have shown us that formula is starting to work again. Let's hope the next 72 hours show us that the progressive movement can muster its troops to make Wall Street accountability happen, and that the president remains open to change.