Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, launched a defense of the financial industry Wednesday. (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK -- After being pummeled for months on the presidential campaign trail, the U.S. business community is finally striking back at its critics.

The "vilification of this [financial] industry and its hundreds of thousands of workers ... must stop now," Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a speech at the Nasdaq stock exchange Wednesday morning.

"The financial industry is far from perfect, but much of today’s rhetoric is ill-informed or just plain wrong," he said. "It seems like the financial services industry has been blamed for everything from income inequality to the common cold."

Wall Street has been under attack from both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, helping fuel growing populist anger and generating support for measures the financial industry says could have a devastating impact. Democrat Bernie Sanders has called for breaking up the big banks, while Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has been critical of hedge fund managers.

Last month, a coalition of more than 20 labor unions and activist groups launched a campaign, known as Take on Wall Street, hoping to capitalize on anti-Wall Street anger and move toward major reform of the financial industry.

That has many on Wall Street worried, and Donohue said Wednesday the Chamber of Commerce will lead "a major effort to defend financial institutions against these reckless and unfair attacks."

Noting that the Take on Wall Street coalition launched with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leading the way, Donohue said the group "was pushing a hodgepodge of misguided and punitive measures." For example, he said, it is proposing that the U.S. Postal Service offer banking services. "Having it launch a banking operation is as dumb an idea as I have heard in Washington, a town full of dumb ideas."

The government should focus on economic growth and a "smartly" regulated financial system, he said. "To place all the ills of the economy at the doorstep of our financial industry is not only fundamentally wrong and unfair," he said, "but it could lead to policy outcomes that would do great damage to American families, savers, retirees and businesses."

Donohue's strong defense of the industry is the latest sign that a major clash on financial reform could be imminent. Another group, Patriotic Millionaires, will hold a news conference in Washington with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Sanders Levin (D-Mich.) on Thursday to show support for legislation to close a "carried interest loophole" that allows private-equity managers to pay a lower tax rate.

"A hedge fund manager who makes over $4 million per day pays a lower tax rate than teachers and truck drivers, yet the Chamber of Commerce wants us to believe that the rules aren't rigged in favor of Wall Street billionaires," Jon Green, a spokesperson for Take On Wall Street, said in a statement. "There's a good reason why the vast majority of Americans think it's time to re-write the rules so Wall Street serves the real economy instead of the other way around."