Obama’s Big Shift: Let’s Truly Investigate the Banking Sector’s Crimes

President Obama said he's eager to debate equal opportunity in last night's State of the Union. But he also offered a huge policy change he's avoided for four years: investigate the banks' housing boom crimes.

By Kai Wright Jan 25, 2012

President Obama said many things at last night’s State of the Union, but the speech really boils down to two very big statements–one about values, the other about policy. The values statement is rightly getting lots of play this morning: Obama’s core message between now and November will focus on economic inequality, specifically, and equal opportunity broadly. Obama grabbed hold of the debate over taxes and reframed it as a debate over opportunity and fairness. That’ll be a welcome change for the broad swath of communities from which Democrats are seeking support, not just for Obama, but for congressional races as well. The policy statement last night is an equally huge deal. Obama announced a new task force to investigate financial industry crimes surrounding the mortgage crisis; the unit is to be led by the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That appointment alone is a big deal: Financial reform advocates love Schneiderman because he’s been one of few public officials to insist that someone still must be held accountable for the multiple forms of fraud that large financial players committed during the housing boom. Moreover, he’s insisted that the people who lost their homes and their hard-earned wealth in the process deserve restitution. That’s a conversation the White House has avoided like the plague since the day it took office. Last night’s announcement marks a dramatic shift. The question remains whether Schneiderman’s unit will be window dressing for a [get-out-of-jail-free settlement with banks](http://www.npa-us.org/news/truthout-protesters-demand-tougher-robo-signing-settlement-banks-making-record-executive-payout) that are currently facing heat from state attorneys general over fraudulent foreclosures. Here’s the reaction from the [New Bottom Line](http://www.newbottomline.com/), a relatively new coalition of homeowner advocates and community groups that had been making this very demand loudly for years: >President Obama has heard the calls of the 99% and announced a full, federal investigation into the fraudulent activities of big banks…. We will continue to make sure that this investigation uncovers the truth about the activities of the big banks. And in order to provide real and meaningful relief to millions of homeowners, the end result must be at least $300 billion in principal reduction and restitution for those who have lost their homes, especially targeted at the most hard hit communities. This will reset the housing market and the economy. I’ll have more on the unit and what it means later this week.