From historic Hall podium, Obama takes on Wall St.


By Lincoln Anderson

Security was on high alert last Thursday morning as President Barack Obama came to The Cooper Union’s Great Hall to make a forceful call for Wall St. reform.

North-south traffic on the avenues around the East Village school was blocked off between 14th and Houston Sts. Police sharpshooters stood watch on the roof of The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building and other nearby buildings. Along the president’s Houston St. motorcade route, cars were towed, and locks on more than 30 bicycles were clipped by police and the bikes taken to the Seventh Precinct. Bomb-sniffing dogs checked the bags of the event’s 700 attendees.

Mayor Bloomberg, leery of government intervention on Wall St., was miffed at not getting an early heads up about Obama’s visit. But he was front row center as Obama gave his remarks. Seated to the president’s right were Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs C.E.O., and other top Wall St. honchos, a captive audience, as Obama urged them to join the reform effort.

Obama spoke at the Great Hall two years ago as Wall St. was starting its downward spiral. He’s the eighth U.S. president to give an address from the historic hall’s podium.

Introducing Obama, George Campbell Jr., Cooper Union’s president, noted that on Feb. 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln famously delivered a powerful anti-slavery speech there, and that Frederick Douglass led abolition rallies there. The women’s suffrage movement was based at Cooper Union, as well, Campbell pointed out.

“It is wonderful to be back at Cooper Union where generations of leaders and citizens have come to defend their ideas and contest their differences,” Obama said at the outset. He noted that, in the two years since his first visit, more than 8 million Americans had lost their jobs. But things are starting improve, he said, noting, “Today, we’re adding jobs.”

However, there won’t be a full recovery without Wall St. reform, he stressed. Taxpayers should never again have to bail out large banks, and banks’ size must be limited, he said.

“As I said on this stage two years ago — I believe in the power of the free market,” Obama stated. “But a free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can get, any way you can get it. … I’m here to say to the titans of this industry: I want to urge you to join us, instead of fighting this effort. … The idea is that taxpayers are never again on the hook because firms are too big to fail. … Unless your business model depends on bilking people, you have little to fear from these new rules,” he assured the Wall St. group.

Stockholders and pensioners should have “say on pay” — on the bonuses Wall St. partners give themselves — the president added.

“When we read about in the past — and sometimes even in the present — enormous executive bonuses, it offends our fundamental values,” he said.

“Ultimately,” Obama declared, “there is no dividing line between Wall St. and Main St. — we will rise and fall as a nation.”

Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, was in the high-powered audience, which also included many Cooper Union faculty members and administrators. Afterward, The Villager asked Volcker if he thought Obama’s reforms would work.

“I hope so,” he said, adding, “There’s a high degree of consensus on this.” Dealing with derivatives will be difficult, though, he said, noting, “There’s going to be a big argument on how precisely to do it.”

City Comptroller John Liu, who also attended the address, strongly supports regulation. He told The Villager beforehand, “It is the lack of regulation that led to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs being lost in the city.”

Robert Bordo, a Cooper Union painting teacher, gave a thumbs up to Obama’s speech, which ran under a half-hour.

“It was very good,” Bordo said. “It was very succinct. It was very direct. He’s a fantastic speaker — and he uses good words like ‘bilk.’ … Very thrilling.”

As people mingled outside in front of the Great Hall afterward, Campbell presented David Greenstein, Cooper’s director of public programs, with a small blue box, “a gift from the president of the United States,” containing a presidential pin. Campbell himself had a slightly larger box containing presidential cufflinks. The Villager asked him to display them for a photo, and Campbell obliged.

Asked if he had spoken about anything privately with Obama, Campbell said, “I did mention to him a factoid that his people hadn’t dug out: that J.P. Morgan was a member of Cooper Union’s board for 25 years. His name very much stands for ‘Big Banking,’ but he was very much opposed to speculation and financial manipulation.”

Campbell said he didn’t think Morgan would have opposed Obama’s reforms.

Sporting purple hair and walking Kilo, her white pit bull, up Fourth Ave. afterward, Acacia Cruze had just left her methadone clinic on Cooper Square. She said she had been freaked out by all the police posted around The Cooper Union, before she remembered that Obama was in town.

“It was intimidating to see all the cops,” she said, then headed over to grab a seat on the shady side of the Astor Place “Cube.”

Nearby on the same traffic island, members of Naturei Karta, an Orthodox Jewish group that doesn’t believe the state of Israel should exist — at least not yet — stood holding banners reading, “Judaism Condemns Zionist Provocations Against President Obama.” When the Messiah comes, they said, God will work everything out and decide who lives where.

Michael Long, the state Conservative Party leader, was among a small, eclectic group of protesters outside the Great Hall. He blasted Obama’s reforms, saying they equaled “a job-stimulus bill for Chicago.”