"In the middle of decrying the misdeeds of the financial firm AIG, President Obama cracked a joke. "Excuse me," he said Monday, after coughing into the microphone. "I am choked up with anger here." There were laughs all around the gilded East Room of the White House, because he didn't sound angry at all.
The laughter, of course, did not fit the occasion, the latest in a seemingly endless stream of public events at which Washington's political leaders work themselves into high dudgeon over the sins of financial wizards who, we are told over and over again, have messed up the world for everyone else. But then, you can only act outraged about the same thing so many times before it all starts to sound stale. These spectacles, the public rhetorical floggings, have become teleplays, as predictable as a daytime soap opera, as comforting as a wet rock.
As the event wore on, even Obama did not seem that into it, a surprising misfire for a politician who has long excelled at always striking the right tone at public appearances. He was almost grinning as he described the "recklessness and greed" of the traders in AIG's financial products division, a reckless band of wealthy incompetents who made bets they could not pay for, leaving the American taxpayer on the hook for as much as $173 billion in emergency funds -- an enormous sum that works out to about $600 for every man, woman and child in America. "How do they justify this outrage?" Obama asked rhetorically, with only the slightest tinge of outrage in his own voice.
Then he announced that he had instructed his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to seek "every single legal avenue available to block" $165 million in bonuses that were awarded last week to the very same traders at AIG's Financial Products division who made the bad bets in the first place. This was a politically necessary thing for Obama to say, even if it lacked a punch."