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Susan Estrich: The Price of Playing by the Rules

Americans who played by the rules are being taken for a ride by those who have not.

President Obama deserves the high marks he is getting from the public for his first month in office. Most presidents get to spend their first month putting up the draperies. This one had to spend his picking up the pieces of a collapsing economy. When the Republicans decided to just say no, he pushed ahead and got going without them. That the country is more united in its support for Obama than is Congress is not a surprise: Those who are not professional politicians find it easier to put politics aside.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich
Nonetheless, we are not all similarly situated with respect to this economic crisis, and if the numbers right now obscure that, the divisions are still looming. The critical divide is not, as in Washington, between Democrats and Republicans, but between those who are looking for or have received a government bailout and those who haven’t. And that divide is defined, at least in part, by those who played by the rules and those who didn’t, which is why there is real anger in America, as well as a desire for unity and action.

Everyone is affected by this economic freefall, even if you don’t work for an automaker or a failing financial institution, even if you’re still employed and didn’t buy a house you couldn’t afford, even if you’re still paying your bills and putting food on the table.

I know lots of people who thought they’d retire in the not-so-distant future, and now they can’t. “Safe” investments turned out not to be so safe after all, and money set aside for kids to go to college or for health care costs just isn’t there. Seniors who thought they would be fine aren’t. Kids who thought they’d have money for college don’t. People whose biggest investment is their house — and that’s the case for most of us — have seen the value of that investment plummet. In other words, no one is untouched by this crisis.

But some people are obviously in worse shape than others, and among those, some are more responsible for their dire straits than others. It’s true that both parties share the blame for the deregulation of financial institutions that allowed people to buy homes they couldn’t afford, and then allowed those mortgages to be packaged into what became toxic packages. But just because you are free to do something stupid and risky doesn’t mean you aren’t to blame for doing it.

No one forced anyone to buy a house they couldn’t afford. No one forced banks and financial institutions to seek ever higher profits without regard to risk. Some people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, because of decisions made by others. But many others are unemployed because of their own greed and the greed of their companies — after years of being overpaid based on “profits” that really weren’t.

We may have to bail them out, but we don’t have to be happy about it. The notion that they should continue to make more money than the president does is ludicrous. The idea that they need to be told that it’s not a good time to buy a new corporate jet is insulting. Mad? Damn right.

President Bill Clinton used to make a point of talking about Americans who “played by the rules,” which in the 1980s and ‘90s was a sort of code for those who weren’t claiming any special entitlement based on identity politics, who weren’t asking the government to pay their bills or put them at the head of the line. The idea was that people who work hard and play by the rules should come first, not last. Clinton’s understanding of the extent to which the Democratic Party was perceived to have strayed from that notion is one of the main reasons he won the presidency and every other Democrat during that period didn’t.

There are a good many Americans — thankfully, still the majority — who get up every morning and work one or two jobs they may not love in order to pay the mortgage for the house that may not be their dream house but is the one they could afford, in order to pay off the credit card bills and live within their means. It’s harder now than it was before, but most of us still do it. We’re willing to help those who need help, but we’re not willing to be taken for fools, or taken to the cleaners.

If the country is to remain united, it will be necessary for those who got us into this mess to bear their fair share of the pain it is causing, and by that I mean the highly paid decision makers who, freed from government regulation, made incredibly stupid decisions, as well as those who took advantage of the free lunch that wasn’t free. I’m not saying people should be booted from their houses, but eventually, they should pay for them.

As for how hard it is for financial executives used to seven-figure incomes to live on a mere $500,000 a year — the limit proposed by Obama for employees of companies that take TARP funds — the more you hear such complaints, the angrier the rest of America is likely to be. Staying together as we go through this crisis will be even more difficult than coming together, and it depends on Obama being able to convince people who played by the rules that they aren’t going to have to pay the price for those who didn’t.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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