WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may struggle to reap political rewards from his big win on Wall Street reform — at least in the near term.
Passage of the most sweeping overhaul of the financial regulatory system since the Great Depression of the 1930s comes as Obama is trying to bolster his sinking poll numbers and avert an election catastrophe for his Democrats.
The financial bill could prove more helpful to Obama when he seeks re-election in 2012 than for Democratic lawmakers trying to keep their seats this November.
Wall Street reform marks the latest in a series of major legislative achievements for the president, who campaigned on a promise of change.
Americans are focused on high unemployment and ballooning budget deficits, and some worry Obama is overreaching with his agenda. That has prevented Obama from gaining a lot of traction from two other signature initiatives: health care reform and the $862 billion stimulus package.
Financial reform could fit the same pattern.
“It will have relatively little positive effect on 2010,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “It’s something Obama can take to the voters in 2012.”
The complexity of the 2,300-page financial reform bill is one reason Baker says it might not help Democrats much in the November congressional elections.
“It has yet to play out and affect the lives of Americans,” Baker said. “It will be a long time before people get a sense that somehow their debit cards are better protected than they were before financial regulation reform was passed.”
Many U.S. voters are unfamiliar with the financial overhaul, according to an Ipsos Public Affairs online poll.
The poll found 38 percent of Americans had never heard of the overhaul and 33 percent had heard of it but knew almost nothing about the legislation. Another 18 percent said they knew “a little bit” about it.
The healthcare measure is also complex, though Baker said voters might come to better appreciate both pieces of legislation by the time Obama seeks re-election in two years.
For now, the jobless rate, which stands at 9.5 percent, trumps healthcare and financial reform.
“If he can get job creation going and we start seeing a decline in unemployment, that’s really the only thing that’s going to rescue Obama and the Democrats,” said Chris Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University.
That may be why Obama focused his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday on his push for extensions in jobless benefits and a program to spur lending to small businesses.
The Senate scheduled a vote on the unemployment benefits on Tuesday — the day before the signing of financial reform.
The White House has openly expressed fear that Democrats could lose their dominance in the House of Representatives.
Democrats are seen as having a better chance of holding onto the Senate though they are expected to lose seats. That would make it harder for Obama to tackle other items on his agenda like energy and immigration legislation.
The White House depicts the financial reform debate as a choice: Setting responsible rules of the road for Wall Street versus allowing greed and recklessness to run rampant.
Obama has argued Wall Street must be reined in to protect consumers and prevent a repeat of the financial implosion that plunged the country into its longest recession in decades.
Senior Obama aide David Axelrod disagreed with those who see the financial bill as too complex to resonate with voters.
“I don’t think it’s complicated to tell credit card holders that they have new rights relative to their credit card companies or mortgage holders that their prepayment penalties are now limited,” Axelrod said.
“I understand that not everybody is steeped in the knowledge of derivatives and all of this kind of exotic instruments that were part of the saga of the financial crisis,” he added. “But everybody in America deals with the headache of credit card fine print and variable mortgages.”
The Wall Street measure passed almost entirely along party lines, with only three Republicans breaking ranks to back it.
One obstacle for Democrats is a dampening of liberal enthusiasm because of concerns that industry lobbyists won too many concessions and loopholes in the final bill.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, an outside adviser to Obama, was disappointed in a rule named after him to prohibit banks with federal deposit insurance from betting with their own money. Volcker felt the rule was too watered-down.
But Republicans are prepared to attack the financial bill from a different vantage point. They hope that the bill and Obama’s populist, anti-Wall Street rhetoric will reinforce an “anti-business” image they are trying to pin on him.
House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner has called the financial legislation ill-conceived and said he wants to repeal it.
“It’s going to make credit harder for the American people to get, clearly harder for businesses to get,” Boehner said. “It’s going to punish every banker in America for the sins of a few on Wall Street.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Xavier Briand