Obama to use passage of financial regulation bill as a campaign issue

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

President Obama plans to use 1,500 pages of often arcane new financial regulations governing a highly complex industry in a populist Main Street message that could help boost his party's political fortunes in November.

The campaign to make that case began even before the Senate passed the bill Thursday night. In a Rose Garden statement, Obama sought to make the connection between the financial legislation and the lives of everyday Americans and businesses.

"Wall Street reform will bring greater security to folks on Main Street -- to families who are looking to buy their first car or their first home; to taxpayers, who shouldn't have to pay for somebody else's irresponsibility," Obama said in a brief statement after the legislation cleared a key hurdle.

The message echoes the one Obama pushed after his health-care legislation passed. But whereas the fight over that issue left his party bruised and the law in need of a PR campaign, aides think the financial legislation remains highly popular with voters.

The financial overhaul passed Thursday with a handful of Republican votes, the culmination of a year of closed-door bipartisan negotiations that at times attracted some significant Republican support. Regardless, Obama's populist rhetoric will be aimed squarely at Republicans who slowed the legislation, with aides saying they will be accused of standing with megabanks rather than with average citizens. Republicans plan to push back against that argument, encouraged by polling they say suggests that voters want action to produce jobs, not Wall Street-bashing.

"How do you explain to the average American that a bill that was meant to rein in Wall Street can be supported by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup but opposed by car dealers, dentists, florists, furniture salesman, plumbers, credit unions and community banks?" asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president and his allies in Congress intend to connect the dots between the financial regulation legislation and the broader questions about jobs and the economy that consume voters.

"I think it will play a very big role in what the president talks about over the next several weeks," Gibbs said. "And I have no doubt that voters will have very clear decisions that they'll get to make in November about whether you . . . supported ensuring that the taxpayers never got the bill again for the risky decisions of Wall Street or whether you supported the risky decisions of Wall Street."

The White House made similar predictions immediately after the health-care bill passed, saying they would use the president's legislative victory as a rallying cry on behalf of Democratic lawmakers. Obama has since talked very little about health care, which remains a sharp point of division among voters.

But William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the financial regulation legislation "is a significant win, and I think for the White House a very saleable win."

Galston, a senior domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, added: "This is an area of very high public concern -- more than concern, a great deal of public anger. The fact that two-thirds of the American people wanted this to get done is a very important reason why it got done."

Most of the bill deals with financial esoterica that would be difficult for average voters to understand. Among other steps, it forces obscure financial contracts known as over-the-counter derivatives onto exchanges; it sets up a council of financial regulators with the power to heighten oversight of companies seen as posing a risk to the economy; and it creates a new authority to allow the government to wind down in an orderly way a giant, complex financial firm that has failed.

Galston and others said the White House is likely to translate that into a message that Americans can understand. He said the new rules for financial institutions mark a return to a popular subject after a health-care debate that many voters saw as "an unwelcome diversion from the focus on the economy.

"Now the White House will be able to say, accurately, that the financial regulatory bill represents a return to that focus in a very important way," he said.

Staff writers Scott Wilson and Neil Irwin contributed to this report.

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