(Admittedly not a particularly impartial report, especially considering the source. Additional warning, article is a hefty 6 pages in length.)
“Why Do America’s Super-Rich Feel Victimized By Obama?”
One night last May, some twenty financiers and politicians met for dinner in the Tuscany private dining room at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. The eight-course meal included blinis with caviar; a fennel, grapefruit, and pomegranate salad; cocoa-encrusted beef tenderloin; and blue-cheese panna cotta. The richest man in the room was Leon Cooperman, a Bronx-born, sixty-nine-year-old billionaire. Cooperman is the founder of a hedge fund called Omega Advisors, but he has gained notice beyond Wall Street over the past year for his outspoken criticism of President Obama. Cooperman formalized his critique in a letter to the President late last year which was widely circulated in the business community; in an interview and in a speech, he has gone so far as to draw a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich.
The dinner was the highlight of the fourth annual SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, known as salt, a convention orchestrated by the fund manager Anthony Scaramucci; it brings together fund managers with brand-name speakers and journalists for four days of talking and partying. The star guest at the dinner was Al Gore, who was flanked by Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, and the New York hedge-fund investor Orin Kramer, a friend of Gore’s and a top Obama fund-raiser.
Discussion that night was wide-ranging. The group talked about Apple, on whose board Gore sits, and Google, where Gore is a senior adviser, as well as climate change and energy policy. The most electric moment of the evening, though, was an exchange between Cooperman and Gore. Heavyset, with a lumbering gait, Cooperman does not look like a hedge-fund plutocrat: Scaramucci affectionately describes him as “the worst-dressed billionaire on planet earth.” Cooperman’s business model isn’t flashy, either. He began his finance career as an analyst of consumer companies at Goldman Sachs, and went on to make his fortune at Omega as a traditional stock-picker. He searches for companies that are cheap and which he hopes to sell when they become dear. (In 1998, Cooperman made a foray into emerging markets, investing more than a hundred million dollars as part of a bid to take over Azerbaijan’s state oil company, but it went badly wrong. His firm lost most of its money and paid five hundred thousand dollars to settle a U.S.-government bribery investigation.) Cooperman had come to the dinner to give Gore a copy of the letter he’d written to President Obama. “I’d like you to read this,” he told the former Vice-President. “You owe me a small favor. I voted for you,” he said, referring to Gore’s Presidential run, in 2000.
In the letter, Cooperman argued that Obama has needlessly antagonized the rich by making comments that are hostile to economic success. The prose, rife with compound metaphors and righteous indignation, is a good reflection of Cooperman’s table talk. “The divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them,” Cooperman wrote. “It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents.”
At the dinner, Al Gore was diplomatic when presented with the letter, and asked Cooperman if he would accept higher taxes. Cooperman said that he would—if he was treated with respect, and the government didn’t squander his money. Cooperman asked Gore what he thought the top marginal tax rate should be. Gore’s reply was noncommittal, but he pleased the group by suggesting that no matter who wins in November the victor should surround himself with advisers with experience in the private sector.
Kramer, the hedge-fund manager and Obama fund-raiser, was quiet, but others in the room were enthusiastic. Villaraigosa gave Cooperman his direct phone number. Barry Sternlicht, the founder of the W hotel chain, and an Obama donor in 2008, said that he agreed totally with Cooperman. Scaramucci, the organizer of the dinner, told me the next day that the guests had witnessed the “activation” of a “sleeper cell” of hedge-fund managers against Obama. “That’s what you see happening in the hedge-fund community, because they now have the power, because of Citizens United, to aggregate capital into political-action committees and to influence the debate,” he said. “The President has a philosophy of disdain toward wealth creation. That’s just obvious, O.K.? We talked about it all night.” He later said, “If there’s a pope of this movement, it’s Lee Cooperman.”
The growing antagonism of the super-wealthy toward Obama can seem mystifying, since Obama has served the rich quite well. His Administration supported the seven-hundred-billion-dollar tarp rescue package for Wall Street, and resisted calls from the Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, and others on the left, to nationalize the big banks in exchange for that largesse. At the end of September, the S. & P. 500, the benchmark U.S. stock index, had rebounded to just 6.9 per cent below its all-time pre-crisis high, on October 9, 2007. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have found that ninety-three per cent of the gains during the 2009-10 recovery went to the top one per cent of earners. Those seated around the table at dinner with Al Gore had done even better: the top 0.01 per cent captured thirty-seven per cent of the total recovery pie, with a rebound in their incomes of more than twenty per cent, which amounted to an additional $4.2 million each.
Notwithstanding Occupy Wall Street’s focus on the “one per cent,” or Obama’s choice of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars as the level at which taxes on family income should rise, the salient dividing line between rich and not rich is much higher up the income-distribution scale. Hostility toward the President is particularly strident among the ultra-rich.