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Obama Tries Some Straight Talk to Wall Street — and Channels Jennifer Aniston

President Obama called on Wall Street today to stop fighting financial regulation and to instead embrace reform, Bloomberg reported. Speaking at Federal Hall in New York City on the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers, Obama used plain language to explain to all the financial wizards who brought us this crisis that they don’t need to wait for new government rules to clean up their own houses.

“You don’t have to wait to use plain language in your dealings with consumers,” Obama said. “You don’t have to wait for legislation to put the 2009 bonuses of your senior executives up for a shareholder vote. You don’t have to wait for a law to overhaul your pay system so that folks are rewarded for long-term performance instead of short-term gains.”

Felix Salmon at Reuters particularly liked this explanation of the need for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about loan contracts designed to be unintelligible, hidden fees attached to their mortgages, and financial penalties – whether through a credit card or debit card – that appear without warning on their statements. And responsible lenders, including community banks, doing the right thing shouldn’t have to worry about ruinous competition from unregulated competitors.

Opponents of such an agency argue that it will limit consumer choice and financial innovation, but Salmon says Obama countered that argument well in his speech, by arguing that in the past a lack of rules has meant “innovation of the wrong kind,” like the firm that could make its products look best by “doing the best job of hiding the real costs.”

For example, we had “teaser” rates on credit cards and mortgages that lured people in and then surprised them with big rate increases. By setting ground rules, we’ll increase the kind of competition that actually provides people better and greater choices, as companies compete to offer the best product, not the one that’s most complex or confusing.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, however, has a different take. Obama, he said, channelled his inner Jennifer Aniston in the speech.

I have an running observation about Obama, inspired by this article in The New Republic, that the president likes to remind audiences that he would prefer to tweak their incentives than have the government mandate reform. He and Treasury, you remember, wanted private investors to choose to buy the toxic assets. He continues to ask private insurers to choose preventative care, end underwriting and cut it out with rescission.

This instinct reminded me of a famous scene from Aniston’s movie The Break-Up, where her character famously tells her live-in boyfriend (Vince Vaughn), not that she wants to do the dishes for him; nor that she wants to force him to do the dishes: She wants him to want to do the dishes.

Reading Obama’s speech with my Rom-Com glasses on, the message is strikingly familiar. Obama doesn’t want to run Wall St. He wants Wall St. to re-learn how to run itself.

In the movie, Aniston’s wish for her boyfriend to want to do the dishes doesn’t exactly come true. Thompson isn’t sure Obama will fare any better.

I swear, it’s not just me watching too much TBS. Tim Fernholz remarks that “his call for financial sector players to act voluntarily in the public interest immediately rather than waiting for reform to pass” sounds like “health care tactics all over again.” It’s true! This is a very standard rhetorical tactic for Obama. Whether it works for him better than the threat worked for Aniston’s character, however, remains an open question.

And that’s the question that remains, as the Lehman anniversary passes, Obama heads back to Washington, and the fate of financial regulatory reform remains up in the air.

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