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Kneale: Obama Speech Tonight—Feel the Dread!

Remember the excited, butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling we had the first time we got to watch the newly elected President Obama address the nation?

One month later a queasy sense of dread emerges whenever he takes the lectern. As our new president prepares to address both houses of Congress at 9 p.m. eastern, the markets and investors brace for his next damaging soundbite.

"Every time the guy speaks, the Dow starts falling," complains one venture capitalist, Ross Manel of ReStart Group in Addison, Texas.

Bam was the Message Man during his incredible campaign for the presidency, besotting millions with his reassuring call for hope and change. Since taking office he has plied an entirely different—and wrongheaded—message, one of fear and fingerwagging, of crisis-mongering and retribution.

This has been damaging to Citigroup, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and their ilk. We need these firms to help us find our way out of this financial abyss, yet the President decries a compensation system he doesn’t understand. He carps at Merrill Lynch’s now-ousted chief, John Thain, for spending the equivalent of ten minutes of revenue to redecorate his office.

Dude-in-Chief: It just isn’t any of your business.

Tonight we need to hear the President say we’re gonna be all right, that we will emerge from this economic collapse stronger and better, that Wall Street will help us reignite growth. And here, at long last, are the details of how we will remove toxic assets from the balance sheets of the biggest, most fragile banks. (ETFs are the answer, see column.)

Instead, tonight we may hear more ennui from the rookie. In his first days in the White House he has warned us that “catastrophe” looms unless government—“the only answer”—spends ridiculous sums; that “now is no time” for profits on Wall Street (then why lend to stoke new business?); that bonuses are “selfish” and “irresponsible” (rather than a smart way to control variable compensation costs).

Even his Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, has wondered: Where’s the hope?

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Yesterday President Obama had the temerity to convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" to preach to us about the evils of the federal budget deficit. This, less than a week after he signed a pork-packed stimulus package to spend $787 billion and unveiled a $275 billion bailout of homeowners who can’t make their mortgage payments.

Message to the Message Man: Now is no time to worry about the deficit. For now, government can finance the budget gap by borrowing at the cheapest rates in decades. President Obama has an ominous subtext for Wall Street at the worst possible time: He’s gonna raise our taxes.

The President also “expressed irritation,” as The New York Times put it this morning, that his Republican opponents were singling out some pork spending “on television arguing about one, two, three percent” of the total bill. Yet Obama keeps carping about Wall Street bonuses, which pose a similarly small part of the $2 trillion economic meltdown.

Even the conservatives among us felt a giddy little dose of hope upon Obama’s taking office. Since then, however, the Obama we feared has emerged—the populist who would incite class warfare; the enemy of Wall Street who wants to rein in rapacious capitalism; the wealth-diverting Robin Hood who hands out billions in tax “rebates” even to the 39 percent of Americans who don’t pay any federal income tax.

On Main Street, Bam is still the Man. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll finds 63 percent of Americans approve of his performance and 57 percent say he’s doing a good job on the economy. He is remarkably likeable, quick-witted and intelligent, and I’m rooting for him.

But on Wall Street, the markets are down 50 percent from 16 months ago, and since President Obama took office the index is down 10.5 percent in 23 trading days. Ya gotta wonder: If the carnage continues on Wall Street, how long will it take for Main Street to begin blaming Obama for not fixing it?

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