(CNN) – Soon after taking office last January in the midst of the recession, President Barack Obama began railing against "shameful" bonuses paid to Wall Street "fat cats." As recently as last month he called bonuses "obscene." But this week, in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the President says he doesn't "begrudge" two CEOs he knows who are getting bonuses of $17 million and $9 million. He calls it "part of the the free-market system."
Fact Check: Has President Obama changed his tone on bonuses?
- In January 2009 President Obama declared Wall Street bonuses the "height of irresponsibility." He said it was "shameful" that banks paid out $18.4 billion in bonuses at the same time they were being bailed out by U.S. taxpayers.
- In January 2010 the president referred to "obscene" Wall Street bonuses when he proposed a new tax on big banks to recoup taxpayer bailout money.
- In an oval office interview Tuesday, the president was asked what he thought about a $17 million bonus for JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon and a $9 million bonus for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Although he was "shocked" by the bonus amounts, the president told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, "I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen." He went on to say, "I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system."
- White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki said, "The president has said countless times, as he did in the interview, that he doesn't 'begrudge' the success of Americans" and he "made clear that there are a number of steps that need to be taken to change the culture of Wall Street. A sentiment he has consistently expressed since long before he took office."
Bottom Line: Yes, the president has changed his tone.
Though the president says he's "shocked" over big bonuses, he's toning down the rhetoric toward those who accept them. His characterization of these two CEOs as "savvy businessmen" is a far cry from the "fat cat" references he made at the height of the financial crisis. It bears pointing out, however, that JPMorganChase and Goldman Sachs are among the banks that have paid back their federal bailout money, and President Obama has made clear distinctions in the past between companies that received bailout money and continued to pay big bonuses, and those that did not.