What do AIG bonuses have to do with health care and cap-and-trade?

Several media outlets have asserted that AIG's payment of controversial employee-retention bonus packages could squelch or impede President Obama's ability to promote his policy agenda. Most of those reporting the claim failed to elaborate on how disclosure of the bonuses could impede Obama's ability to pass aspects of his agenda such as health-care reform and climate change policy.

In March 17 reports, several media outlets said that the American International Group's payment of employee-retention bonus packages could squelch or impede President Obama's ability to promote his policy agenda. For instance, in a March 17 Washington Post article -- headlined “Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama's Political Capital” -- staff writers Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane asserted as fact that the bonuses “dealt a sharp blow to his young administration and is threatening to derail both public and congressional support for his ambitious political agenda” and suggested that “the fate of the new president's sweeping agendas on health care, climate change and education” might be affected.

Other examples of the media stating or suggesting that the AIG bonus payments could impede Obama's agenda include:

  • A March 17 USA Today article reported that “skepticism” over the AIG bonuses “could spill over onto Obama's agenda.” The article continued: “Next month, he is expected to propose a detailed budget that will propose spending that will lead to a $1.75 trillion deficit in the name of ending the recession. He also wants to overhaul the nation's health care system. Those ambitious goals could be threatened if Congress rejects more heavy spending.”
  • In a March 17 Los Angeles Times article, staff writers Peter Nicholas and Janet Hook reported that Obama has returned to “campaign-style tactics” in order to “pressure lawmakers to back Obama's plans in Congress, particularly his $3.6-trillion budget. That would be a tough sell in any environment, with lawmakers and industry lobbyists skeptical of sweeping and costly plans to revamp healthcare, convert to alternative fuel and stabilize the financial sector.” The article then asserted that "[c]omplicating the president's job were revelations over the weekend that insurance giant American International Group Inc. was paying $165 million in executive bonuses even though it had accepted a huge federal bailout."
  • In a March 17 post on ABCNews.com's The Note, ABC's Rick Klein postulated: “In this environment -- until or unless the bonuses are canceled -- is it possible to imagine the president getting another set of cash set aside to bail out big banks? How about another stimulus package? How about his budget? And healthcare and cap-and-trade and education reform?”
  • In a March 17 post on the New York magazine blog Daily Intel -- headlined “Are AIG Bonuses Ruining Obama's Big Plans?” -- Dan Amira wrote that the bonuses “could potentially tie Obama's hands going forward as he continues to try to salvage the financial system and push his vast agenda.” Amira then linked to and summarized Shear and Kane's Post article and Klein's The Note post.
  • In a March 18 Bloomberg News article -- headlined “Obama May Find Anger Over Bonuses Backfires on Agenda” -- Hans Nichols reported that “The public furor over the $165 million in bonuses AIG handed out to employees gives administration critics a new weapon to thwart Obama's agenda, from his budget to plans for financial-market regulation.” Nichols later elaborated: “Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, said the party will try to take advantage of the bonus issue to weaken the president. 'The real target for the Republicans is to bring Obama back down to earth,' Reed said. 'The AIG issue over bonuses lies at his feet.' ”

As Media Matters for America has noted, in their reporting on AIG's bonuses, in several cases, media failed to note that it was then-President Bush's Treasury Department that worked with the Federal Reserve in carrying out last year's bailouts and bought AIG stock, notwithstanding the existence of these bonus contracts.