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Obama wins on Wall St., loses Main St.

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • White House considers finance reform bill a historic achievement, says Gloria Borger
  • She says it's true voters wanted tighter curbs on Wall Street after bailouts
  • Borger: Voter concern about big government has overtaken call for Wall Street reform
  • Obama and his party may not reap any gain from the bill, she says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°" and "State of the Union," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- Ask anyone at the White House about the importance of the financial reform bill the president will sign today, and the answer is near-universal: a colossal achievement. And why not?

It's sweeping legislation: creating new consumer protections, making it unattractive for institutions to become "too big to fail," imposing new rules for financial transparency.

And, by the way, it's also a pretty popular idea, in theory at least: 60 percent of Americans say they want to reform Wall Street, according to a recent CNN poll. So it's a no-brainer, right?

Not exactly, at least not now. The problem for Obama and Co. is that, while anti-Wall Street sentiment is still alive, it's playing second fiddle to a much stronger fervor: anti-government. While voters want to see a change on Wall Street, they're not sure that the government's new regulations are going to make it happen.

Video: Financial reform signed into law

So all that work for reform, and the Democrats will get very little credit in the short-term. "The populist sentiment of 2008 may be overridden by the anti-government, anti-spending fervor of 2010," writes GOP strategist Steve Lombardo. "The passage of this legislation may ultimately be helpful to Obama in 2012, but it is likely to have little or no impact in the congressional elections this fall."

In other words, we want Wall Street fixed. But we don't trust government to do it.

That's why, when Republicans oppose the measure, the explanation is always all about government, not about Wall Street. The GOP is proud to vote "no" in unison, says Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, on 'things like the government running banks and car companies and taking over our health care."

As for financial reform? "It's going to require the issuance of 370 new regulations," he told Candy Crowley on CNN's State of the Union, as if the notion of regulating Wall Street is shocking.

In fact, the lax regulatory environment was considered the leading culprit after the financial meltdown. Everyone, we were told, was asleep at the switch. And in some cases, the regulators had no switch, no real power. But now, it's the regulations, as an extension of government, that have become suspect. How quickly we forget.

The problem is that the administration has created the environment that now threatens to undermine its own successes: it has pushed the tolerance of the American people for more government activity than makes them comfortable.

The president had two agendas when he took office, says former Bill Clinton domestic policy adviser Bill Galston: "He had the agenda he ran on, and the agenda that circumstances forced on him. And the question was whether the agenda of necessity would force the downsizing of the agenda of choice."

Obama did both.

He did an economic stimulus plan and devoted a year to health care. He bailed out the banks and passed financial reform. And he still wants to get something done on energy and immigration, so long as there are enough Democrats to pass something.

All of which has left an American public anxious about the reach of government in general, and, more specifically, about what all of this is costing. It's no surprise, for instance, that a slim majority of the American public now believes that reducing the deficit is more important than spending or even tax-cutting to promote economic growth, according to a new National Journal poll.

So anything that smacks of big-government right now is a no-no.

For its part, the Obama administration argues that its view is the long view that health care will, for example, reduce the deficit in the long term. And, as one senior adviser tells me, they could end up with the best of both worlds -- renewed economic growth as well as a list of momentous policy achievements.

In the meantime, however, they've given rise to the Tea Party and given congressional Democrats political agita. Long-term thinking can be politically dangerous.

Just ask the Republicans, who are taking the short view: opposing everything is good short-term politics. They'll win a large number of congressional seats, but then they have a problem of their own: What do they do with all of those Tea Party candidates who aren't much interested in governing? If they win the House, will those new GOP members vote for any spending bill? Will they support funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Let's see what happens if the GOP wins a congressional majority in the House, and with it, a responsibility to govern. Funny how things change when the public thinks you're in charge.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.