It's easy to dismiss the Tea Party. For one thing, they seem fond of a 18th century lifestyle that preceded the age of big corporations, big government, and life expectancies that extended much beyond one's thirties. But while they seemingly lack intellectual appeal, they do resonate emotionally with a chunk of voters. Enough voters, in fact, to cost Obama the 2012 election.
In the decade of the 00s, bankers made billions and then cost us trillions. As CEO of Goldman Sachs, Hank Paulson made $37 million in 2005 alone. He left banking with a net worth of $700 million when he became the US Treasury Secretary. Not only did he engineer a bailout of trillions for the banking industry (including billions for Goldman Sachs) but included in the bailout legislation clauses protecting bankers from any liability for the financial meltdown of 2008.
The financial meltdown cost millions to lose jobs and homes and wiped out retirement accounts for millions more. No one has gone to jail for this bank robbery. Countrywide CEO Mozilo did have to pay $67.5 million in fines and settlement fees, which sounds like a lot until you realize that he made $470 million in just the six years leading up to the bursting of the bubble. Not only did Mozilo escape jail time or financial hardship, but even the ratings agencies that assured bond holders that packaged subprime bonds deserved AA and AAA ratings were allowed to continue to do business without any penalties for their egregious failures to warn investors.
What Obama should have done is appoint someone as savvy as Elliot Spitzer to investigate the players in the drama leading up to the costliest financial collapse in history and found people to penalize and even imprison. Not only would this have bolstered his support among his base, it would have won over so many of the independent voters whose outrage at Wall Street led them to join forces with the Tea Party. By failing to address the injustice of systemic abuse of American taxpayers, Obama fed the emotional energy that the Tea Party has tapped.
And to prosecute would not just salve the anger of Americans. Prosecution would have helped to curtail bad behavior by bankers, letting them know that while the American government could not afford to let the financial system collapse, it certainly could afford to prosecute and jail a number of bank executives. As much as trillion dollar bailouts, prosecution would have helped to strengthen the banking system by making bad behavior costly.
Obama's apparent disdain for the emotional cost of the 2008 crisis may cost him re-election. And may even give him a place in history as the co-founder of the Tea Party.