CNBC Reporter to Obama: Is Wall Street As 'Harmful' To Us as Big Tobacco?

CNBC's John Harwood, in an interview aired on Thursday's Today show, pressed Barack Obama about the need to regulate Wall Street as he questioned the President if Americans needed to view them in the same way they view Big Tobacco as "companies whose core activities are harmful to the country?" Obama declined to make the comparison to the tobacco companies, but went on to insist Wall Street needed new rules to protect against "excess." [audio available here]

JOHN HARWOOD: Should average Americans think about big Wall Street institutions the way that some have come to think about tobacco companies, that is, companies whose core activities are harmful to the country? 

BARACK OBAMA: No. We have to have a thriving financial sector. But, we also have to have basic rules of the road in place to make sure that investors, consumers, shareholders, the economy as a whole, are protected against excess. We have gotten into one of those places where we need to update those rules of the road, and if we do so, not only is that good for the economy, not only does it protect consumers and investors, it's also good for the financial sector.

Harwood did manage to ask Obama about contributions he received from Goldman Sachs and the fact that his former White House counsel is representing them as he pried: "In the 2008 campaign you got a lot of money, about $1 million, from employees of Goldman Sachs. Your former White House counsel Greg Craig is apparently going to represent Goldman Sachs. In light of this case, do either of those things embarrass you?"

However at the end of the segment Today co-anchor Meredith Vieira claimed Republicans were "warming up" to a financial reform bill and did the White House have "a sense" of "victory over this?" To which Harwood responded "Average Americans dislike Wall Street...so this is a case where public opinion's on the President's side. He was hitting Republicans over the head with that and they're finally coming to the table..." And just before signing off Harwood ominously warned higher middle class taxes could be on the way.

MEREDITH VIEIRA: You know Republicans are warming up to this reform bill where they were adamantly opposed to it before some revisions were introduced. Was there a sense at the White House of, of victory over this?

HARWOOD: I think so. Look this is an issue, unlike health care, where public opinion was divided. Average Americans dislike Wall Street, in many cases as much as they dislike Washington. So this is a case where public opinion's on the President's side. He was hitting Republicans over the head with that and they're finally coming to the table and looks like they're gonna make a deal pretty soon.

VIEIRA: And on a very different note, during your interview the President did not rule out the possibility of raising taxes on the middle class, something he has always opposed in the past. Was he sending up a trial balloon? 

HARWOOD: Watch this story, Meredith. This is likely to be the biggest - next big debate in American politics in 2011 because as the economy recovers, many on the President's team believe we need a serious assault on the deficit, and the amount of revenue that's needed can't all be gotten from the rich.

The following is the full Harwood segment as it was aired on the April 22 Today show:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Moving on to the economy and President Obama's push for a new financial reform package, the President travels to New York today to sell his plan in the shadow of Wall Street. But before leaving Washington he sat down with CNBC's John Harwood who also rights for The New York Times. John, good morning.

JOHN HARWOOD: Good morning, Meredith. You know the President made the case financial regulation reform would be good not just for average Americans but for those Wall Street institutions. But he also made emphatically clear that the White House had nothing to do with the case involving one of those most famous institutions, Goldman Sachs, that was filed last week by the SEC.

[On screen headline: "Taking On Wall Street, President Obama One-On-One"]

BARACK OBAMA: The SEC is an entirely independent agency that we have no day-to-day control over and they never discussed with us anything with respect to the charge that will be brought. So this notion that somehow there would be any attempt to interfere in an independent agency is completely false.

HARWOOD: In the 2008 campaign you got a lot of money, about $1 million, from employees of Goldman Sachs. Your former White House counsel Greg Craig is apparently going to represent Goldman Sachs. In light of this case, do either of those things embarrass you?

OBAMA: No. Anybody who gave me money during the course of my campaign knew that I was on record pushing very strongly that we needed to reform how Wall Street did business. As far as my former White House counsel, Greg Craig, he's one of the top lawyers in the country. He has a range of clients. But we have toughest ethic rules that any President's ever had. And the one thing that he knows is that he cannot talk to the White House, cannot lobby the White House. Once he left the White House, he cannot in any way use his former position to have any influence on us.

HARWOOD: Should average Americans think about big Wall Street institutions the way that some have come to think about tobacco companies, that is, companies whose core activities are harmful to the country?

OBAMA: No. We have to have a thriving financial sector. But, we also have to have basic rules of the road in place to make sure that investors, consumers, shareholders, the economy as a whole, are protected against excess. We have gotten into one of those places where we need to update those rules of the road, and if we do so, not only is that good for the economy, not only does it protect consumers and investors, it's also good for the financial sector.

HARWOOD: Some of the institutions and their lobbyists don't seem to think it would be so good for them.

OBAMA: Well, that's not surprising. They've made out very well. I, and I think the vast majority of Americans, think it is unacceptable to have a situation in which tails, you win, and, and heads, I lose.

HARWOOD: Now we expect to hear from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at a Senate committee next week. But as for the Cooper Union speech today the President is expected to talk about average Americans and the consequences for them if the Congress doesn't pass financial reform, Meredith.

VIEIRA: You know Republicans are warming up to this reform bill where they were adamantly opposed to it before some revisions were introduced. Was there a sense at the White House of, of victory over this?

HARWOOD: I think so. Look this is an issue, unlike health care, where public opinion was divided. Average Americans dislike Wall Street, in many cases as much as they dislike Washington. So this is a case where public opinion's on the President's side. He was hitting Republicans over the head with that and they're finally coming to the table and looks like they're gonna make a deal pretty soon.

VIEIRA: And on a very different note, during your interview the President did not rule out the possibility of raising taxes on the middle class, something he has always opposed in the past. Was he sending up a trial balloon?

HARWOOD: Watch this story, Meredith. This is likely to be the biggest - next big debate in American politics in 2011 because as the economy recovers, many on the President's team believe we need a serious assault on the deficit, and the amount of revenue that's needed can't all be gotten from the rich.

VIEIRA: Alright, John Harwood, thank you so much.

HARWOOD: You bet.

VIEIRA: Good interview.

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