Obama Should Steer Clear of Cheap Shots at Wall Street: View

The Washington Post reports that President Barack Obama has decided to make anti-Wall-Street rhetoric a “central tenet” of his re-election strategy. This is a terrible idea, and we urge the president to reconsider.

Perhaps he already has. At the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on Sunday, Obama said that if King were alive today, “he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.”

We support Obama’s stance that people who earn more than $200,000 (or $250,000 for a couple) ought to contribute more to the public weal. Critics call this “class warfare,” but it needn’t be. The intention isn’t to punish the rich, nor to suggest that people with high incomes are bad. The intention is to raise the money necessary to finance the amount of government we want, and to do so as fairly as possible. Those who have been luckiest in the lottery of life -- whether by talent or trust fund -- have also, in recent years, been luckiest in rates of taxation, as Warren Buffett has vividly demonstrated by comparing his average rate with that of his secretary.

It becomes difficult, however, to maintain that there is no invidious intention if proposals to raise taxes are justified by rhetoric suggesting that Wall Street or the banking industry or wealthy people in general have misbehaved in some way that hurts the rest of us.

Cheap populist rhetoric would seem absurd coming from an administration that has hired heavily from the financial industry and raised plenty of campaign contributions from rich people. Wall Street certainly deserves criticism, but not everybody with income over $200,000 works in finance. Such rhetoric would also appear opportunistic, with the Obama administration finding targets even more unpopular than itself to pick on. And it gives a needless weapon to conservative critics of the Dodd-Frank financial consumer protection bill -- an Obama victory that Republicans promise to repeal if they regain the White House.

After Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona last January, everyone in Washington promised to try to bring more civility into political debate. We believe that this would not only be a good thing on the merits, but on balance would help the Democrats, who have not sunk to quite the depths of incivility as the other party. Why would President Obama, as a Democrat running for re-election or as a president trying to lead his people in turbulent times, want to make incivility a “central tenet” of his re-election campaign? Nastiness is a game he cannot win.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.