Barack Obama turns up populist economic rhetoric in wake of Supreme Court decision on campaign finance

Jon Ward Contributor
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As hopes for health-care reform grew dimmer, President Obama turned up his populist rhetoric in an effort to find a new way forward toward this fall’s midterm elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the House cannot currently pass the Senate health-care bill demonstrated how very suddenly this president finds himself in an adverse political climate.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, said the Senate bill is a nonstarter in large part because of the election of a Republican to the Massachusetts Senate seat on Tuesday.

“I don’t see the votes for it at this time,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. “Unease would be a gentle word in terms of the attitude of my colleagues toward certain provisions in the Senate bill.”

Pelosi’s frank admission demonstrated the upheaval unfolding among Democrats. One month ago, they expected to be nearing completion of the health-care bill, with the goal of having it signed by the president by or just after his State of the Union Address.

The 10 months until midterm elections figured to be an uphill fight, but Democrats had planned to point relentlessly to the benefits for everyday Americans in the health-care bill, while also trying to make a dent in unemployment as well as taking on financial regulatory reform.

But health care is teetering, following the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Brown campaigned, in part, on a pledge to vote against Obama’s health-care bill.

The unemployment rate will not be below 10 percent this year, barring some sort of miracle.

So reform of the financial sector has moved to the forefront of Democrats’ talking points, and with an edge. It is now Obama versus the big banks and corporate interests, fighting for the taxpayer. The White House hopes Republicans take them on, so they can portray them as on the side of “fat cat bankers,” as the president called them in December.

Democrats were unabashed in citing the need for the new White House narrative as a way for their party to align themselves with widespread voter discontent.

“What we have to look at here is the wave. We’re either going to be destroyed by it or we’re going to ride it,” said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster, at an American University panel Thursday morning.

“We should get in charge of this dynamic,” Lake said.

The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to remove restrictions on political spending by corporations fit neatly into the developing White House effort to claim the populist high ground.

Obama wasted no time in using the ruling to frame his new narrative of choice.

“With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

Obama called the court’s 5-to-4 decision a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

He is directing the White House to work with Congress on “a forceful response.”

It was the second time Thursday that Obama went on the offense against Wall Street greed.

In the morning, Obama announced a proposal that would make it illegal for banks to “own, invest or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit, unrelated to serving their customers.”

The idea is to keep firms from becoming “too big to fail.”

The president said that an “army of industry lobbyists” had already begun “descending on Capitol Hill” to stop such reforms.

“If these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have,” Obama said.

The financial reform announcement follows on the heels of last week’s bank fee. The Obama administration hopes to tax executive bonuses at the 50 largest financial institutions that received money from the $700 bailout in the fall of 2008.

The goal is to recover $90 billion in bailout funds has not been paid back, mostly by struggling U.S. automakers and by the government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Taylor Griffin, a former Treasury Department official under the Bush administration, said the fee was “designed from the ground up as a political weapon.”

“It simultaneously creates a populist wedge with Republicans, neutralizes the idea that businesses are wielding too much influence in the Obama Administration, distances Democrats from TARP programs, and raises tens of billions of dollars – all for far less than what banks will pay in bonuses over the next few years,” he said.

In the afternoon, Obama again sounded a populist note.

“While Wall Street may be recovering you and I know your main streets still have a long way to go,” Obama said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.