Obama Goes Populist

Since Tuesday's election in Massachusetts, President Obama has turned his focus on cracking down on Wall Street and fiscal responsibility--moves sure to address some of the populist economic anxiety voiced by Massachusetts voters.

And on Friday, the rhetoric followed: in a speech at an appearance in Ohio, Obama chose the words of working-class populism.

Obama visited Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio--in a county that supported him 58 percent to 41 percent over John McCain in the 2008 election--and the populism in his speech there was palpable: it was anti-financial-sector, pro-little-guy, anti-Washington, and folksy.

He told the audience that "it's always nice to get out of Washington" because "the hardest part of being president, as great an honor as it is" is not being able to travel around the country, "talking with folks like you about the challenges you face in your own lives," according to his remarks as prepared.

He took another shot at Washington as he closed the speech: "It's easy to get a pretty warped view of things from Washington. But when I get out here and talk with folks like you, I'm reminded of the strength--the resilience and perseverance--of the American people."

Obama focused mostly on working-class concerns like jobs, wages, and  the cost of education, and he offered up some tough rhetoric on banks.

The 2000s were "one of the toughest decades our middle class has faced in generations.  This has been a decade where some Americans made huge amounts of money, while many others pedaled faster and faster, only to find themselves stuck in the same place, or even slipping behind," Obama said.

"I ran for this office to rebuild our economy so it works not just for a fortunate few, but for hardworking people in this country. To create good jobs that can support a family. To get wages growing and incomes rising. To improve the quality of America's schools," Obama said.

On financial bailout money, Obama said, "You can rest assured, we're going to get that money--your money--back, each and every dime."

The administration's bank policies have been a political stumbling block, perhaps as much as health care, according to polls: National Journal polling has found that 76 percent see the administration's response to the financial crisis as benefiting (separate categories lumped together here) banks, investment companies, major corporations, and wealthy individuals. AFL-CIO-sponsored polling by Hart Research found that, in Massachusetts, 61 percent said recession policies have helped large banks a lot or a fair amount, vs. 18 percent who said the same of working people.

"I'll never stop fighting to give every American a fair shake," Obama said, continuing the "I'll never stop fighting" refrain with regards to "deceptive practices" in the financial sector, government transparency, and waste and abuse.

And he said he'll continue working on health care, fitting that into the working-class message as well: "I want to protect mothers, fathers, children from being targeted by the worst practices of the insurance industry," Obama said. "I am not going to walk away just because it's hard...because I am not going to watch more people get crushed by costs, or denied the care they need by insurance company bureaucrats, or partisan politics, or special interest power in Washington."

The speech came after, in the wake of the loss of his party's 60th Senate vote, Obama signed a presidential memorandum cracking down on tax-delinquent contractors and then, on Thursday, unveiled a plan for dealing with too-big-to-fail institutions and barring banks from owning hedge funds and private-equity firms--a move that is expected to limit the profitability of institutions like Goldman Sachs.

The anti-health-insurance-industry, anti-special-interest-power rhetoric has been a staple of Obama speeches since early summer, as he has used that language to press for health reform. But in his speech on Friday, anti-Washington-ism and standing up for the little guy was showcased more prominently as a frame for his entire presidency.