Election 2012: Don't let the banks off easy

First published in Newsday.

“Can Obama lose this election?" a friend asked the other day. It's something supporters of the president are well within reason to ask these days, given the widespread economic misery that has opened a big double doorway to that possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 54 percent see the current troubles as the beginning of a long-term national decline, not simply a trough for the U.S. economy that will give way to prosperity soon.

And so with a race that could tilt either way, Americans are obsessed with who's ahead in the Republican pack, and President Barack Obama's sympathizers gleefully chalk up the gaffes: restaurant executive Herman Cain's groping allegations, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's forgotten list of federal agencies to shutter, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shifting stance on health care.

But the president will be missing a crucial responsibility over the next 11-plus months if he allows the Democratic Party's message to center on the horrors of the Republican roster. That responsibility is this: to reassure Americans that there's a candidate in the race who can't be bought and sold on Wall Street.

According to that same Journal/NBC poll, three out of four people say the nation's economic structure favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of us. That's an incredibly skewed perception of the basic fairness and merit-based achievement that are supposed to underlie our democracy. We aren't Dubai or Panama, are we?

No wonder half of those responding to the poll say they identify with one of this country's polar extremes: the tea party or Occupy Wall Street.

But beyond a broad disaffection fueled by high unemployment and underwater mortgages, the perceptions of poll respondents were specific to Obama as well: About three-quarters said the president has fallen short of his promises to improve oversight of the banks and Wall Street.

That's why the Obama administration's position is confounding on a proposed national settlement between big banks and federal and state officials over mortgage abuses. Attorneys general around the country are examining foreclosures made, perhaps illegally, through a hasty process known as "robo-signing." The president's people are said to be pushing for a $28-billion agreement - while a few outlier attorneys general are resisting: Eric Schneiderman here in New York, Kamala Harris in California and Beau Biden in Delaware.

Let's face it: $28 billion is a puny sum compared with the harm caused. To put it in perspective, negative equity in the housing market tops $700 billion. The government shouldn't give bankers immunity from legal liability - perhaps for any sum - but certainly not for so little, and not before a thorough investigation of banks' role in the near-meltdown of the global financial system.

In the past, a little salve on the wound - $28 billion in mortgage forgiveness, refinancing, credit counseling and legal services - might have been a very smart election-year gambit. But the economic pain and resentment of the last three years is too deep, and the Internet has made the public better informed. Reacting to news about the possible bank settlement, the Occupy Wall Street folks hoisted a sign reading, "Obama, don't be Wall Street's puppet."

Perhaps the president has good reasons for urging this settlement with the banks. If he does, he should take his case to the public. Because there's a lot more at stake than which party takes the White House. We could lose our faith that our government works for most of the people, most of the time.