President Obama and his team have decided to turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy.
The move comes as the Occupy Wall Street protests gain momentum across the country and as polls show deep public distrust of the nation’s major financial institutions.
And it sets up what strategists see as a potent line of attack against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, a former investment executive whom Obama aides plan to portray as a wealthy Wall Street sympathizer.
Many Democrats consider Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, the greatest threat to Obama when it comes to wooing centrist independents next year, and Romney this week has begun to present himself as a champion of middle-income Americans.
Obama aides point to recent surveys that show anger at Wall Street spanning ideologies, including a new Washington Post-ABC News poll in which 68 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans say they have unfavorable impressions of the big financial institutions.
But the strategy of channeling anti-Wall Street anger carries risks. Many of Obama’s senior advisers have ties to the financial industry — a point that makes Occupy protesters wary of the president and his party.
In recent days, Obama has ramped up his rhetoric. He took the unusual step of targeting an individual company when he attacked Bank of America for its new $5 monthly debit-card fee, calling it “exactly the sort of stuff that folks are frustrated by.” And his campaign and the White House have distributed messages blasting GOP candidates and lawmakers for wanting to repeal Wall Street regulations pushed by Obama and opposing the confirmation of a leader for the consumer protection bureau created as part of the overhaul.
“We intend to make it one of the central elements of the campaign next year,” Obama senior adviser David Plouffe said in an interview. “One of the main elements of the contrast will be that the president passed Wall Street reform and our opponent and the other party want to repeal it.”
“I’m pretty confident 12 months from now, as people make the decision about who to go vote for, the gut check is going to be about, ‘Who would make decisions more about helping my life than Wall Street?’ ” Plouffe added.
Romney, no doubt anticipating the White House’s new attack line, sought to show solidarity with the demonstrators during this week’s GOP candidates debate.
“The reason you’re seeing protests . . . is middle-income Americans are having a hard time making ends meet,” he said.
GOP leaders say the Wall Street law is government overreach, and Romney’s economic plan calls for replacing it with a “streamlined regulatory framework.”
Obama has tried this line of attack before, railing in 2009 against “fat-cat bankers” who he accused of taking excessive bonuses in the wake of the financial meltdown. But after complaints from Democrats on Wall Street and business leaders, the president has spent much of the past year courting companies — even hiring a new chief of staff, William Daley, from the banking industry.
And many on the left have attacked Obama and his administration for its ties to Wall Street, arguing that the financial regulatory overhaul fell far short of an industry makeover that many critics believed necessary.
Much of his top economic team has roots in the financial services industry, and in recent months Daley and top campaign aides have devoted much of their time improving the relationship with big-dollar donors on Wall Street.
That relationship helps explain the brewing tensions between Democratic officials and the Occupy Wall Street protests. The growing movement is adding new energy to a disaffected left that the party has been trying to excite — but it is largely separate from traditional party institutions.
“The fact that Obama has been so close to Wall Street makes this tough going for him,” said Van Jones, a longtime liberal organizer and former Obama aide.
The situation mirrors the choice Republican Party officials confronted in 2009 as the tea party movement found its footing and began challenging establishment figures in the GOP hierarchy. Over time, a series of establishment groups such as FreedomWorks began coordinating with the activists, and the tea party insurgency began to more closely resemble the energized GOP base.
Liberal activists, though, see the Occupy groups as a potentially more unwieldy phenomenon resistant to traditional politics and resentful of the Democratic Party’s reliance on corporate money.
That distrust was evident at an Atlanta demonstration last week, when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a legendary protester in his own right, was denied the chance to speak. A video of the incident, in which Lewis looks on uncomfortably as activists rise to debate whether allowing a congressman to speak violates the spirit of the protest, became an Internet sensation.
Other disputes have been raging online and in person at demonstration sites across the country. At Occupy D.C., the McPherson Square encampment inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a shouting match erupted this week when a woman describing herself as a longtime Democratic campaign worker encouraged the young protesters to express their concerns by voting, only to be told that voting was not enough.
An Obama strategist from Florida, Steve Schale, posted on his Facebook page that “clamoring for change is hollow unless you vote.” He linked to an image from the liberal Think Progress blog calling on activists to “Occupy the Polls.”
A former Obama volunteer from central Florida, Madison Paige, retorted on Schale’s page that voting alone could not fix the system, saying, “We have to be willing to do the hardest work — and that means taking a look in the mirror when necessary.”
How demonstrators channel their activism could depend on what they see and hear from Obama in the coming months — meaning the protests present opportunities and perils for the president as he starts to strike a more populist tone on the campaign trail.
“It’s not a danger — if [Obama] handles it properly,” said Steve Hildebrand, an architect of Obama’s 2008 grass-roots organization who is not affiliated with the reelection effort. “I would encourage him to carefully listen to the people who are passionately protesting Wall Street, big corporations and CEO pay.”
Obama and his aides have been cautious in discussing the demonstrations. The president said last week that the protesters were “giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”
But Obama also defended his support for bailing out distressed banks after the 2008 financial crisis, saying he “used up a lot of political capital, and I’ve got the dings and bruises to prove it, in order to make sure that we prevented a financial meltdown and that banks stayed afloat.”
Obama and his campaign are now ramping up efforts to portray the Wall Street overhaul he signed last year as a key rallying point. A campaign e-mail sent last week — as the demonstrations gained momentum — urged supporters to pressure the Senate to confirm former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created as part of the law.
“The goal of this campaign — and this President — is to make sure people who work hard and play by the rules get a fair shake, whether that means being able to get a loan to buy a house and send your kid to college, or not having to go bankrupt when you get sick,” the e-mail said.
Polls suggest that pressing such issues and going after the banks could be a winner, both with liberals and centrists. But it could also become uncomfortable next year — particularly if Obama continues to single out institutions such as Bank of America.
His party will hold its convention next year in Charlotte, a major banking city known nationally as the firm’s corporate home town.
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.