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Full Text; Obama on "Renewing the American Economy"

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The policies of the Bush Administration threw the economy further out of balance. Tax cuts without end for the wealthiest Americans. A trillion dollar war in Iraq that didn’t need to be fought, paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China. A complete disdain for pay-as-you-go budgeting – coupled with a generally scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement – allowed far too many to put short-term gain ahead of long term consequences. The American economy was bound to suffer a painful correction, and policymakers found themselves with fewer resources to deal with the consequences.

Today, those consequences are clear. I see them in every corner of our great country, as families face foreclosure and rising costs. I seem them in towns across America, where a credit crisis threatens the ability of students to get loans, and states can’t finance infrastructure projects. I see them here in Manhattan, where one of our biggest investment banks had to be bailed out, and the Fed opened its discount window to a host of new institutions with unprecedented implications we have yet to appreciate. When all is said and done, losses will be in the many hundreds of billions. What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up.

That is why the principle that I spoke about at NASDAQ is even more urgently true today: in our 21st century economy, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. The decisions made in New York’s high-rises have consequences for Americans across the country. And whether those Americans can make their house payments; whether they keep their jobs; or spend confidently without falling into debt – that has consequences for the entire market. The future cannot be shaped by the best-connected lobbyists with the best record of raising money for campaigns. This thinking is wrong for the financial sector and it’s wrong for our country.

I do not believe that government should stand in the way of innovation, or turn back the clock to an older era of regulation. But I do believe that government has a role to play in advancing our common prosperity: by providing stable macroeconomic and financial conditions for sustained growth; by demanding transparency; and by ensuring fair competition in the marketplace.

Our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. But we can do so only if we restore confidence in our markets. Only if we rebuild trust between investors and lenders. And only if we renew that common interest between Wall Street and Main Street that is the key to our success. Now, as most experts agree, our economy is in a recession. To renew our economy – and to ensure that we are not doomed to repeat a cycle of bubble and bust again and again – we need to address not only the immediate crisis in the housing market; we also need to create a 21st century regulatory framework, and pursue a bold opportunity agenda for the American people.

Most urgently, we must confront the housing crisis.

After months of inaction, the President spoke here in New York and warned against doing too much. His main proposal – extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans – is completely divorced from the reality that people are facing around the country. John McCain recently announced his own plan, and it amounts to little more than watching this crisis happen. While this is consistent with Senator McCain’s determination to run for George Bush’s third term, it won’t help families who are suffering, and it won’t help lift our economy out of recession.

Over two million households are at risk of foreclosure and millions more have seen their home values plunge. Many Americans are walking away from their homes, which hurts property values for entire neighborhoods and aggravates the credit crisis. To stabilize the housing market and help bring the foreclosure crisis to an end, I have sponsored Senator Chris Dodd’s legislation creating a new FHA Housing Security Program, which will provide meaningful incentives for lenders to buy or refinance existing mortgages. This will allow Americans facing foreclosure to keep their homes at rates they can afford.

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Senator McCain argues that government should do nothing to protect borrowers and lenders who’ve made bad decisions, or taken on excessive risk. On this point, I agree. But the Dodd-Frank package is not a bailout for lenders or investors who gambled recklessly, as they will take losses. It is not a windfall for borrowers, as they will have to share any capital gain. Instead, it offers a responsible and fair way to help bring an end to the foreclosure crisis. It asks both sides to sacrifice, while preventing a long-term collapse that could have enormous ramifications for the most responsible lenders and borrowers, as well as the American people as a whole. That is what Senator McCain ignores.

For homeowners who were victims of fraud, I’ve also proposed a $10 billion Foreclosure Prevention Fund that would help them sell a home that is beyond their means, or modify their loan to avoid foreclosure or bankruptcy. It’s also time to amend our bankruptcy laws, so families aren’t forced to stick to the terms of a home loan that was predatory or unfair.

To prevent fraud in the future, I’ve proposed tough new penalties on fraudulent lenders, and a Home Score system that will allow consumers to find out more about mortgage offers and whether they’ll be able to make payments. To help low- and middle-income families, I’ve proposed a 10 percent mortgage interest tax credit that will allow homeowners who don’t itemize their taxes to access incentives for home ownership. And to expand home ownership, we must do more to help communities turn abandoned properties into affordable housing.

The government can’t do this alone, nor should it. As I said last September, lenders must get ahead of the curve rather than just reacting to crisis. They should actively look at all borrowers, offer workouts, and reduce the principal on mortgages in trouble. Not only can this prevent the larger losses associated with foreclosure and resale, but it can reduce the extent of government intervention and taxpayer exposure.

Beyond dealing with the immediate housing crisis, it is time for the federal government to revamp the regulatory framework dealing with our financial markets.

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Our capital markets have helped us build the strongest economy in the world. They are a source of competitive advantage for our country. But they cannot succeed without the public’s trust. The details of regulatory reform should be developed through sound analysis and public debate. But there are several core principles for reform that I will pursue as President.

First, if you can borrow from the government, you should be subject to government oversight and supervision. Secretary Paulson admitted this in his remarks yesterday. The Federal Reserve should have basic supervisory authority over any institution to which it may make credit available as a lender of last resort. When the Fed steps in, it is providing lenders an insurance policy underwritten by the American taxpayer. In return, taxpayers have every right to expect that these institutions are not taking excessive risks. The nature of regulation should depend on the degree and extent of the Fed’s exposure. But at the very least, these new regulations should include liquidity and capital requirements.

Second, there needs to be general reform of the requirements to which all regulated financial institutions are subjected. Capital requirements should be strengthened, particularly for complex financial instruments like some of the mortgage securities that led to our current crisis. We must develop and rigorously manage liquidity risk. We must investigate rating agencies and potential conflicts of interest with the people they are rating. And transparency requirements must demand full disclosure by financial institutions to shareholders and counterparties.

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President of the United States.
Former Senator from Illinois


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