One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.
"Most people in the financial world," a top Obama donor later told me, "do not understand how most of America feels about them." But they think they understand how the president's inner circle feels about them. "This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years," the donor said. "And it shows."
Even if they didn't agree with Obama on everything in 2008, many in the financial industry looked at him then and saw a reflection of their imagined best selves: brainy, self-made, above the mewlings and histrionics of partisan politics. He seemed like the kind of Democrat even white-shoe Republican bankers and libertarian hedge-funders could get behind, and many of them did. "There is a growing belief on Wall Street that Barack Obama has the capacity to lead us out of this wilderness," Jim Cramer, the financial journalist, wrote several weeks before Election Day.
Obama far outraised his Republican rival, John McCain, on Wall Street -- around $16 million to $9 million -- and Goldman Sachs executives sent Obama more money than employees of any other company in the world. But four years, one recession and a host of battles -- over financial regulation and the nomination of Elizabeth Warren, over Dodd-Frank and the Buffett Rule -- have taken their toll. Some on Wall Street are apoplectic. One former supporter, Dan Loeb, compared Obama to Nero; the president's enemies insinuated worse. In 2010, Stephen A. Schwarzman, a founder of Blackstone, said that an Obama proposal to raise taxes on "carried interest" -- the main source of income for most private-equity managers -- reminded him of "when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939."
Messina traveled to New York again to meet with 30 or so Obama supporters at the Core Club, a members-only establishment in Midtown that caters to the hedge-fund crowd. In a brief presentation, Messina thanked those who had been supportive, described the campaign's plans for 2012 and offered his impressions of the president's likely opponent, Romney. According to several people in the room, he closed with an appeal to the executives for help, asking them to consider signing on as hosts for the small dinner, now scheduled for March 1 (they had just locked in that date). "We want it to be a big success," Messina told the room.
Mindich, the former Goldman whiz kid, had a question. If Romney were the nominee, Mindich asked, how would the Obama campaign go after him? Would it attack his record at Bain Capital? Would it attack the private-equity industry?
Near him sat Blackstone's James, who, just a few weeks earlier, had called attacks on private equity "vicious . . . inaccurate and unfair." Mindich and James are friends, and some in the room speculated that Mindich's question was for James's benefit.