Obama hones populist message to push economic agenda
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Obama's aides have persistently tried to paint Republicans as the party of the rich, with mixed results.
Now, the White House sees signs the message is resonating and Obama will try this week to seize on the momentum to gain victories on two priorities: renewing a popular tax cut and getting Senate approval for a new Wall Street regulator.
Since September, Obama has traveled the country to try to sell a $447 billion jobs package he argues is vital to reviving the lackluster economy and helping middle-class families.
So far, he has little to show for those efforts, leaving him vulnerable in the 2012 presidential campaign to Republican attacks over his economic stewardship amid stubbornly high U.S. unemployment and an anemic recovery.
But the White House is increasingly optimistic about the prospects for one part of the jobs plan: an extension of a temporary payroll tax cut that was first passed a year ago.
Obama's advisers see a split that has emerged among Republicans over the payroll tax cut as evidence they have gained an advantage on that issue.
"Our hand is very strong on this," one senior administration official said, adding that Republicans would demonstrate "historically unprecedented hypocrisy" if they try to insist they are the party of tax cuts while opposing the renewal of the payroll tax cut.
Obama's aides also believe they can gain traction for the effort to confirm Richard Cordray, who has a history of taking a tough stance toward banks, as head of the watchdog agency charged with protecting consumers from financial fraud.
Obama will try to give a boost to both priorities and hone his populist campaign message on Tuesday by channeling former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt during a trip to Osawatomie, Kansas.
More than a 100 years ago, Roosevelt delivered a speech in Osawatomie in which he railed against big corporations and the privileged while arguing for "fair play" for ordinary Americans. Obama will echo those themes, aides said.
"The kinds of things of arguments that (Obama) will be making in Kansas ... dovetail very nicely with the importance of leveling the playing field and ensuring that the middle-class get a fair shot in a difficult economy," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
'THE BIG BATTLE'
Speaking on the NBC program "Meet the Press," longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod described the payroll tax cut extension as "the big battle" and "the big question we have to solve right now."
Emphasizing themes Obama is likely to use to push for confirmation of Cordray, Axelrod also hammered Republicans on financial regulation.
"They think if we roll back the rules on Wall Street and let Wall Street write its own rules that that will somehow accelerate the economy and profit everyday Americans," he said.
Many rank-and-file Republicans are wary of extending the holiday on payroll taxes, which provides the revenue stream for a government trust fund for the Social Security retirement program. Opponents of the tax cut - who include some Democrats - argue that continuing the tax cut would weaken the Social Security trust fund.
However, Republican leaders, including House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, have emphasized in recent days that they are willing to work with Obama to extend the cut.
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the notion that Obama was managing to pressure Republicans over the tax cut was based on a "false premise" that the party is refusing to work with president on the issue.
"We offered 77 days ago to sit down and work out the details with him," Buck said. "If he wants to sit down and get it done, we think we probably can."
Without congressional action by the end of the year, the payroll tax would revert to 6.2 percent from the current rate of 4.2 percent.
Obama's Democrats are emphasizing a Senate vote last week in which Republicans refused to go along with their push to extend and expand the payroll tax cut and pay for it with higher taxes on millionaires.
Republicans have resisted confirmation of Cordray, contending that the legislation that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau he would head up needs to be changed to rein in the regulatory agency and make it more accountable.
A Senate vote on Cordray's nomination is tentatively scheduled for Thursday. White House officials said Obama is planning a major media blitz this week to try to pressure Republicans to approve Cordray.
With the Occupy Wall Street movement in the spotlight, Obama's efforts could play well with Democratic activists who at times have been frustrated with his reluctance to fully embrace anti-Wall Street sentiment.
Although he has referred to bankers as "fat cats," Obama has at times sought to modulate his rhetoric toward the financial industry because of wariness about upsetting markets and fear of being cast as anti-business by Republicans.
(Editing by Eric Beech)
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