Don’t Call It a Bailout: Washington Is Haunted by the 2008 Financial Crisis

Michael Kikukawa, another White House spokesman, later said in a statement: “The president’s direction from the outset has been to respond in a way that protects hardworking Americans and small businesses, keeps our banking system strong and resilient, and ensures those responsible are held accountable. That’s exactly what his administration’s actions have done.”

Mr. Biden, for his part, blamed Mr. Trump for the current crisis, saying “the last administration rolled back some of these requirements” in the Dodd-Frank law that Mr. Obama signed in 2010. Mr. Trump signed legislation passed by lawmakers in both parties in 2018 freeing thousands of small and medium-sized banks from some of the strict rules in the earlier law.

The bailouts back then came in response to a banking crisis that seemed far more dangerous than what is currently evident. Some of the country’s most storied investment houses were collapsing in 2008 under the weight of risky mortgage-based securities, starting with Bear Stearns and later Lehman Brothers.

Mr. Bush was warned that a cascade of failures could propel the country into another Great Depression. “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression,” he told aides, “you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”

Casting aside his longstanding free-market philosophy, Mr. Bush asked Congress to authorize $700 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, to prop up the banks. Aghast at the request just weeks before an election, the House rejected the plan, led by Mr. Bush’s fellow Republicans, sending the Dow Jones industrial average down 777 points, the largest single-day point drop in history to that point. Alarmed by the reaction, the House soon reversed course and approved a barely revised version of the plan.

Mr. Obama and his running mate, Mr. Biden, both voted for the program and went on to win the election. Taking office in January 2009, they then inherited the bailout. In the end, about $443 billion of the $700 billion authorized was actually used to bolster banks, automakers and a giant insurance firm. As unpopular as it was, the injection of funds helped stabilize the economy.

The ultimate cost of the bailouts of that period remains in dispute. Mr. Obama and others who were involved often say that they were all ultimately paid back by the companies that benefited from the funds. ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, calculated in 2019 that after repayments the federal government actually made a profit of $109 billion.


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