Obama Weighs In on Occupy Wall Street

He sympathized with protesters' angst at a news conference but hedged on prosecuting financial executives.

President Obama Holds News Conference In The East Room Of The White House

President Obama again pushed for his jobs bill during a news conference on Thursday, challenging lawmakers who vote against it to explain that decision to American voters. But reporters wanted to know what the president had to say to people who are out of work, foreclosed on or barely above water — particularly those who have been demonstrating for three weeks now at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

“I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel — that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place,” he said from the White House East Room. “So yes, I think people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”

He continued that he’s been trying to enact the financial regulatory reforms that passed in 2010 — holding banks and other financial firms accountable for risky activities, and requiring servicers to provide consumers with clear, easy-to-understand information on what they’re purchasing, all supervised by a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — but said that Republicans have held up its progress. Take, for example, Thursday’s vote by Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee against the nomination of Richard Cordray as head of that financial-oversight bureau.

“Republicans have threatened not to confirm him not because of anything he’s done but because they want to roll back the whole notion of having a consumer watchdog,” Obama continued. “You’ve got Republican presidential candidates whose main economic policy proposals are ‘We’ll get rid of the financial reforms that are designed to prevent the abuses that got us into this mess in the first place.’

“That does not make sense to the American people. They are frustrated by it. And they will continue to be frustrated by it until they get a sense that everybody is playing by the same set of rules, and that you’re rewarded for responsibility and doing the right thing, as opposed to gaming the system.”

Why No Wall Street Prosecutions?

Despite Obama’s touting of his attempts at regulatory might, Jake Tapper of ABC News pushed the president to explain the fact that his administration hasn’t prosecuted any Wall Street executives who didn’t play by the rules. This is where the president’s good talk on financial regulation scaled back a bit.

“One of the biggest problems about the collapse of Lehman’s and the subsequent financial crisis and the whole subprime lending fiasco is that a lot of that stuff wasn’t necessarily illegal; it was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless,” he said. “That’s exactly why we needed to pass Dodd-Frank, to prohibit some of these practices.”

And what about the practices that were illegal?