Cautious Moves on Foreclosures Haunting Obama

by 20 Aug 2012

(CNBC) -- After inheriting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, President Obama poured vast amounts of money into efforts to stabilize the financial system, rescue the auto industry and revive the economy.

But he tried to finesse the cleanup of the housing crash, rejecting unpopular proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program — and a bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest.

During his first two years in office, Mr. Obama and his advisers repeatedly affirmed this carefully calibrated strategy, leaving unspent hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress had allocated to buy mortgage loans, even as millions of people lost their homes and the economic recovery stalled somewhere between crisis and prosperity.

The nation’s painfully slow pace of growth is now the primary threat to Mr. Obama’s bid for a second term, and some economists and political allies say the cautious response to the housing crisis was the administration’s most significant mistake. The bailouts of banks and automakers are now widely regarded as crucial steps in arresting the recession, while the depressed housing market remains a millstone.

“They were not aggressive in taking the steps that could have been taken,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the California Democratic caucus. “And as a consequence they did not interrupt the catastrophic spiral downward in our economy.”

Mr. Obama insisted the government should help only “responsible borrowers,” and his administration offered aid to fewer than half of those facing foreclosure, excluding landlords, owners of big-ticket homes and those judged to have excessive debts.

He decided to rely on mortgage companies to modify unaffordable loans rather than have the government take control by purchasing the loans, the approach advocated by his chief political rivals in the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain.

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