'Today' Trumpets Obama's Wall Street Lecturing

On Thursday's "Today" show NBC reporters offered little skepticism of Barack Obama's dictations to corporate America, instead buttressing Obama soundbites with sloganeering as, Meredith Vieira declared, "President Obama lashing out at Wall Street and clamping down on corporate fat cats," and Savannah Guthrie underlined, "The President bashed Wall Street," and "took a shot across the bow." The "Today" show then brought on CNBC'ers Melissa Francis and Dylan Ratigan to discuss Obama's capping of executive pay at $500,000, to which they both agreed, "it didn't go far enough." "Today" anchor, millionaire and world traveler, Matt Lauer himself lectured: "Can the culture of Wall Street be changed? Let, let's just be clear here. Private jets, perks, lavish trips gone. Is it ever, are they ever gonna come back?" But when Ratigan tried to use the ratings performance of the "Today" show to make a point, Lauer jokingly, but quickly, cut him off as seen in the following exchange:

MATT LAUER: Just going back to the beginning. We talk about $500,000 for these corporate CEOs. Let's just be clear-

DYLAN RATIGAN: It's a ton of money.

LAUER: That's a lot of money. It's a lot of money-

MELISSA FRANCIS: Yeah.

LAUER: -for the average person waiting on tables and...

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

LAUER: ...restaurant.

RATIGAN: Not to mention if you, if you ran your, if, if this show had, has, ratings went to zero-

LAUER: Don't bring this show into it.

The following are transcripts of the bailout-related segments as they were aired in the first half-hour of the February 5, "Today" show:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: And now to President Obama lashing out at Wall Street and clamping down on corporate fat cats. But just how much of an impact will it have? We have two reports, starting with NBC's Savannah Guthrie at the White House. Good morning, Savannah

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Good morning, Meredith. As you said, last week the President bashed Wall Street for paying itself those big bonuses while getting taxpayer bailouts. Well it turns out, that was the shot across the bow. Now he's following up those words with action.

[On screen headline: "Onto The Stimulus, Obama Pushes GOP Senators"]

BARACK OBAMA: The economic crisis-

GUTHRIE: With the Treasury Secretary by his side and Wall Street excess on his mind, the President unveiled tough new rules on executive pay.

OBAMA: For top executives to award themselves these kinds of compensation packages in the midst of this economic crisis isn't just bad taste, it's bad strategy, and I will not tolerate it as President.

GUTHRIE: An answer to the outcry over Wall Street executives who helped themselves to billions in bonuses after getting a taxpayer rescue. The new rules force companies that get big taxpayer bailouts to limit salaries of top executives to $500,000. Any bonus pay must be in the form of company stock that can't be cashed out until taxpayer money is repaid. But the rules don't apply retroactively to companies that have already received billions in taxpayer money. And as for controversial luxury items like corporate jets or lavish company parties, the new rules don't ban them outright, just force companies to disclose the spending publicly on their Web sites. The idea, shame the executives into better behavior.

ROBERT GIBBS: The transparent viewing of the practices of businesses that are involved in receiving assistance from the federal government I think will have a tremendous impact, as it already has, in changing the behavior of individuals.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: This is HR-1.

GUTHRIE: As the Senate debated his economic recovery plan for a second day-

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: People are running scared in the Senate because this bill is stinking up the place.

GUTHRIE: -the President continued to court key republicans and wavering Democrats with meetings at the White House.

SEN. BEN NELSON: This is about jobs, jobs, jobs.

GUTHRIE: But he used tough talk, flexing his political muscle, reminding Republicans pushing tax cuts that he's the one who won the election.

OBAMA: I reject these theories, and by the way, so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change.

GUTHRIE: Well despite all the wrangling in Congress, aides here still expect this package to pass by mid-February, and the President continues his sales pitch today, writing an editorial in The Washington Post saying this crisis could linger for years and be irreversible if this plan doesn't pass, Matt.

LAUER: Savannah Guthrie at the White House. Savannah, thanks very much to you. It sounds like common sense, but is the President's plan realistic? CNBC's Melissa Francis is here with that part of the story. Hi Melissa, good morning.

[On screen headline: "Bailout Salary Cap, Will It Change Things On Wall Street?"]

MELISSA FRANCIS: Hi, Matt. You know we have all been talking about excess on Wall Street for months. Well, now the President has taken a first step towards a solution and topping the list of questions that surround his plan, will it even work?

OBAMA: Top executives at firms receiving extraordinary help from U.S. taxpayers will have their compensation capped at $500,000.

FRANCIS: With those words, President Obama put fat cats on Wall Street on notice. No more cashing in on the bailout.

NEIL WEINBERG, FORBES MAGAZINE: The practices of the past, the egregious payment where people are getting rich in senior executive levels while the shareholders are getting poor is not going to be countenanced by our government any more.

FRANCIS: Will this shake up business as usual?

JEFFREY SONNENFELD, YALE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT: This is a very fair plan. The President of the United States is making $400,000 a year. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court making $265,000 a year. To reach the $500,000 level is kind of generous.

FRANCIS: Wall Street has argued that it needs to reward its best and brightest or risk losing them. So, will some executives now jump ship to companies not covered by the new bailout salary cap?

[On screen headline: "Bailout Salary Cap, Will It Change Things On Wall Street?"]

WEINBERG: The question is, where are they going to run to and I think the answer is, there's not a whole lot of places that they really can go right now.

FRANCIS: But perhaps the biggest question, will this change the culture on Wall Street, given that these same executives will eventually have access to stock options?

WEINBERG: The bottom line is, these guys could still get filthy rich during this time when they're essentially operating on government money. The main benefit you're going to see here is the moral suasion, is the idea that the government is sort of, trying to show these companies, that you have to start reeling this in on your own.

FRANCIS: This concept of executive salary caps, of course, isn't new, but most economics agree that this time the President really had no choice. It got to the point, where especially from a PR perspective, something had to be done.

LAUER: Yeah alright and let's bring in your colleague now Dylan Ratigan. And, and let's talk about this folks. It sounds like common sense okay? But take, take the logic out of this for a second. Do you see any problems with this cap?

[On screen headline: "Bailout Salary Cap? Does Wall Street Get It"]

DYLAN RATIGAN: The only problem I see with this cap is that it doesn't go far enough. I feel like we're in a situation where we've put trillions of dollars of taxpayer money either directly into the banking system or to support the banking system, and yet, we're letting the people that ran the banks into the ground still operate the banks. So people get frustrated with the fact that they're like, "Why do they have access to our money, and yet, they're doing whatever they want?" So, it's almost a bad formula.

LAUER: Okay, but I, see I don't think anybody is gonna have any sympathy for a current CEO who's run a company into the ground getting his or her a salary cap.

RATIGAN: Which is, no question.

LAUER: But these companies need to be turned around

RATIGAN: Why? Why do they?

LAUER: Well wait if it comes to hiring someone else to run the company-

RATIGAN: Yeah? Yeah?

LAUER: -while it's still getting federal bailout money-

FRANCIS: You know what the problem. That's the problem.

RATIGAN: That's the issue, yeah.

FRANCIS: You hit on the problem right there, is that they're taking federal bailout money.

RATIGAN: Yeah.

FRANCIS: That's where this problem begins. Because once taxpayer money enters the situation, the government enters the situation, suddenly they're running the company.

LAUER: If you would rather have the best and the brightest CEO running one of these troubled companies-

RATIGAN: Right?

LAUER: -are you going to be able to attract that person from a company-

RATIGAN: Absolutely.

FRANCIS: (inaudible)...are still getting stock.

RATIGAN: Not only that but I take issue with the, with the assumption in your question, which is that these banks must be brought back. My goodness-

LAUER: Well some are gonna fail.

RATIGAN: My point is we need banks in this country, but the lie, the big lie is that these banks, particularly, must be supported. No, no these banks operated in a way that was egregiously risky and ran themselves into the ground. America needs banks and it is in the taxpayers' interest to have banks-

LAUER: But do we still-

RATIGAN: -but why is it the taxpayer's responsibility to resurrect these banks? I don't think it is.

LAUER: Once, once, once, well once we have an investment in these companies, these banks, do we not want them to be able to compete at the highest level?

FRANCIS: Well that's, that's what's called sunk costs. I mean we've sunk money into these banks to try and save them, but at some point you have to say, are there a few of them -- to Dylan's point -- that just need to go?

LAUER: Well of course there are but President Obama has articulated that.

RATIGAN: Right.

LAUER: He says some of these banks are gonna go away, but the others you want to succeed. And I'm just saying, can you attract top talent at a company? And you said, yeah they can still get around this with stocks.

FRANCIS: Well they're paying stock options. I mean Dylan said it doesn't go far enough and that is the truth. I mean it's $500,000 is the cap on cash compensation and for most of these guys that's a rounding error. Lloyd Blankfein made $68.5 million in 2007. $500,000 is nothing. But they still get stock. And you know there's no limit on that.

LAUER: We started the segment by asking, could, can the culture of Wall Street be changed? Let, let's just be clear here. Private jets, perks, lavish trips gone. Is it ever, are they ever gonna come back?

RATIGAN: No, not necessarily, I would-, absolutely. Here's the thing. Banking is something that is good for our economy. Taking deposits and putting money back out in, with good loans. We want that. Just as we want good cars, good medicine, good technology. Bad banking, banking where people make loans or sell insurance that they cannot pay for in order to enrich themselves and stick the bill for it, with the taxpayer, is something we in America don't want. So what we would like to see from our government is for them to encourage an environment that creates good, healthy banks that have good business practices and orderly disposition of the fools that ran the banks into the ground previously.

LAUER: But you know what's strange here. You're starting to see a bleed-over here. You're seeing corporations that are not on the public dole here, cut back those things like the jets and everything-, just for PR reasons.

FRANCIS: Just...

RATIGAN: That's a moment in time. That's a moment in time.

LAUER: So that's a blip, that's a blip on the radar.

FRANCIS: And it's also right now, and they can't really afford it. When profits are down it makes sense to cut those things. But they'll come back.

LAUER: Let, let-

RATIGAN: And if the three of us started a new bank and we actually were able to do a good job we could fly around in our private plane all we wanted.

LAUER: If I started a bank there would be no one putting money in that bank.

...

LAUER: Just going back to the beginning. We talk about $500,000 for these corporate CEOs. Let's just be clear-

RATIGAN: It's a ton of money.

LAUER: That's a lot of money. It's a lot of money-

FRANCIS: Yeah.

LAUER: -for the average person waiting on tables and...

FRANCIS: Absolutely.

LAUER: ...restaurant.

RATIGAN: Not to mention if you, if you ran your, if, if this show had, has, ratings went to zero-

LAUER: Don't bring this show into it.

RATIGAN: It's a beautiful show.

(laughter)

LAUER: Alright you know?

RATIGAN: I'm just saying.

LAUER: Oh, we're out of time. Sorry about that. Dylan Ratigan, Melissa Francis, thanks.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.