Stephen Baker

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The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama

September 10, 2012General

A banker friend tells me that the hatred for the president among his ranks is deep and pervasive. Now it would make sense that many people who make boatloads of money would be against a president who proposes to raise their taxes. And no doubt many of them object to the Dodd Frank regulations that followed the 2008 financial collapse, even if skeptics call them toothless.

But I would argue that at the heart of the bankers' anger is a much deeper wound: their moral justification has been brought into question. Psychologists who study the dynamics of power have found a distinct divide between those who have it and those who don't. Powerless people, research shows, are eager for respect. Powerful people, by contrast, want to feel morally justified. In short, everyone wants what they suspect they're missing. (This plays out in race relations, according to a paper by Princeton's Hilary B. Bergsieker and colleagues. People in the minority want to be respected, while those in the majority are eager to be liked.)

Through the Clinton and Bush years, bankers enjoyed respect and moral justification, while also getting rich. It was almost too good to be true. They ran the economy, and during good times it could be argued that they ran it well. Members of their fraternity, including Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, headed the treasury and were viewed as rational and far-sighted. They understood and appreciated the markets. Meanwhile, mid-level bankers got paid as well as the New York Yankees.

The Obama team came to power in the middle of the financial collapse. It would be almost impossible for any politician in those circumstances not to blame Wall Street's greed and shortsightedness for the calamity. Sure, bankers could dispatch legions of lobbyists to protect their industry from regulators, and to hold onto their financial perks. But since the 2008 collapse, it has been much harder for them to feel good about themselves, to feel virtuous. That hurts, and they blame the president.

I got a taste of this in my own life. My father, Walter, graduated from college in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression. He was lucky to land a job for about $8 a day at Girard Bank, in Philadelphia. Bankers back then were the targets of politicians, including President Franklin Roosevelt. Until his dying day, my father could imitate FDR lambasting financiers in his 1936 speech introducing the Second New Deal:

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."

My father, even though he was politically liberal, loathed FDR, much the way many bankers today detest the far more concilatory Obama. In fact, a friend reminds me, my dad would place FDR stamps on envelopes with his head facing down, so that he could more easily scout out his destiny in hell. For my father, this was a 70-year obsession--all because the president in the 1930s appeared to question his moral fiber.


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