President Barack Obama urged Congress on Thursday to quickly send him legislation ending abusive credit card practices. But his populist appeal also included a stern warning to shoppers whose eyes are bigger than their budgets.
"There's no doubt that people need to accept responsibility," Obama said at a town hall-style appearance at a high school here. "This is not free money — it's debt and you should not take on more than you can handle."
Obama's event began with a testimonial from a woman who said she had been mistreated by her credit card company when her interest rate inexplicably and suddenly shot up to 30 percent. Obama's audience also included several dozen other people who have expressed frustrations in letters and e-mails to the president about their credit card companies.
He asked for accountability from individual citizens who often buy far more than they can afford.
"Banks are businesses too. So they have a right to insist that timely payments are made," Obama said.
Still, his main purpose in appearing here was to lobby Congress from afar to make it harder for credit card companies to hike interest rates precipitously, charge unfair late fees, or impose other impossible conditions on consumers.
"Those days are over," he said.
"This is America and we don't begrudge a company's success when that success is based on honest dealings with consumers," Obama said. "We need reform to restore some sense of balance."
With Obama demanding a bill on his desk by Memorial Day, the House has approved legislation containing some of the protections Obama seeks. A slightly different version is pending in the Senate, where a vote could come as early as this week.
Both measures would ban interest rate increases on previous balances in most cases, and require that customers be given 45 days notice before their rates are hiked. The bills also would deter companies from giving a credit card to minors.
The issue is a top one for Obama, particularly as the recession continues and consumers complain about being abused by credit card issuers. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. households have a credit card, and just under half carry a balance, according to the White House.
Obama also discussed the bill in his radio and Internet address last Saturday. And he had industry representatives come to the White House for a meeting last month.
"We didn't agree on anything — everything — as you might imagine," Obama said about the meeting, then laughing as he realized his verbal mistake. "That was a slip of the tongue," he joked. "We didn't agree on everything."
Indeed, as the industry isn't sitting quiet.
The American Bankers Association has warned senators that the measure could backfire by restricting credit for consumers at a time when they need it the most. The industry also argues that new rules by the Federal Reserve, scheduled to take effect in July 2010, address many of the concerns expressed by Obama and members of Congress. Obama doesn't believe those rules go far enough to fix the problem.
On his way out of town, Obama's motorcade passed a clutch of protesters, a preview of what the president, who supports abortion rights, can expect to see on Sunday when he delivers the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic school. Protests were expected at Notre Dame over Obama's abortion position and his support for embryonic stem cell research.
Among the signs held by the protesters were: "Abortion kills children" and "Obama we pray for your hardened heart."