Of all people, Barack Obama is the unlikeliest to be stirring up a lynch mob, but there is no other way to describe his stoking of public anger over the AIG bonuses.
“In the last six months, A.I.G. has received substantial sums from the U.S. Treasury,” Mr. Obama took the podium to say yesterday. “How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” He railed against “recklessness and greed.”
Undoing unconscionable bonuses in the company that keeps getting huge taxpayer bailouts is a fair exercise of government power, but demonizing a relative handful of people who were part of a huge systemic failure is out of character for a president who is a peacemaker by instinct and an economic optimist by necessity.
The growing anger is leading to a mob mentality. “A tidal wave of public outrage over bonus payments swamped American International Group yesterday,” the Washington Post reports.
“Hired guards stood watch outside the suburban Connecticut offices of AIG Financial Products, the division whose exotic derivatives brought the insurance giant to the brink of collapse last year. Inside, death threats and angry letters flooded e-mail inboxes. Irate callers lit up the phone lines. Senior managers submitted their resignations. Some employees didn’t show up at all.”
It’s disheartening to see Obama leading a pack of tinhorn politicians and media mouths when he should be confirming his stand against unfairness but emphasizing the positive steps he is taking for national recovery, as he did with his announcement yesterday of a “substantial program” to get credit flowing to small businesses.
A New York Times editorial notes that “the bonuses are something of a distraction. Seen by themselves, the payments are huge, but they are less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the money already committed to the A.I.G. bailout.”