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Obama resets presidency with attention to economy

Facing a potentially disastrous political shift, President Barack Obama tried Thursday to begin resetting his wounded presidency with a one-two-three populist punch.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Facing a potentially disastrous political shift, President Barack Obama tried Thursday to begin resetting his wounded presidency with a one-two-three populist punch.

The president announced proposals for tough restrictions on the biggest banks, to come on top of a financial regulatory overhaul he already seeks. "If these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have," Obama said in a war-on-Wall-Street tone.

His reaction to the Supreme Court decision rolling back limits on campaign donations by big business was stern, saying it would allow wealthy special interests to "drown out the voices of everyday Americans" and promising a "forceful response."

Obama then went before dozens of mayors to tout administration moves to alleviate economic pain. "You can expect a continued, sustained and relentless effort to create good jobs for the American people," the president declared.

Republican Scott Brown rode deep public anger to an upset win in Massachusetts, depriving Obama and fellow Democrats of the Senate supermajority they need to advance important legislation. That left the president's marquee domestic agenda item — health care reform — in peril. It also raised uncomfortable questions about the president's judgment, clout and popularity.

It wasn't the way Obama wanted to mark this week's first-year anniversary of his presidency. Nonetheless, a chastened but determined White House team, populated with campaign-seasoned aides accustomed to near-death moments, began to grapple with the implications and chart a path forward.

They appeared to settle on only a limited course correction — for now.

The White House strategy calls for sharpening Obama's policy explanations to the public and making more pointed distinctions with opposition Republicans. Above all, it calls for a hard pivot to focus almost exclusively on the economy — particularly on voter frustrations over things like double-digit unemployment, exploding federal deficits and Wall Street excesses.

What it doesn't call for is a radical agenda overhaul.

Nips and tucks, yes. Also likely a reordering of priorities, or delays on the trickiest issues like immigration, a cap-and-trade energy emissions system or letting gays serve openly in the military.

But the White House is hoping that if it can hone its message — with Obama himself conceding it had begun to look like "remoteness and detachment" — and reconnect with public angst about pocketbook issues, it can get Obama's ambitious goals back on track without altering or scaling them back too much.

Officials said some of the jobs-generating ideas Obama has already proposed and will heavily promote in the coming weeks are:

_New spending for highway and bridge construction.

_Tax cuts for small businesses that increase their payrolls.

_Money to retrofit millions of homes to be more energy-efficient and create "green" jobs.

_Funds to help state and local governments avert layoffs of public-sector employees.

House Democrats adopted a $174 billion bill with many, though not all, of those ideas. However, it passed only barely, and the deficit-financed measure faces a tougher road in the Senate — meaning Obama faces a fight over a new jobs bill.

The president also will be make regular appearances on other economic plans, most old, some new: on bringing down the deficit (such as through a possible bipartisan debt commission), increasing access to capital for small businesses, and boosting exports, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe private planning.

The economic calendar of events continues Friday, when Obama travels to recession-battered Ohio for a town hall meeting. The fortuitously timed State of the Union address then provides the president with among his largest megaphones of the year, and his planned travel immediately afterward will be geared toward jobs.

Obama also intends to use his budget request to Congress to help establish his fiscal discipline bona fides. "We are scrubbing the budget once again," Obama told Time magazine.

Throughout, Obama plans to talk more forcefully about Republicans.

Heeding calls from fellow Democrats and aware of the public's particular fury toward banks, the financial regulatory push could provide ammunition. Republicans will have to vote on a series of issues like a special bailout tax on large banks or creating a consumer financial protection agency.

"It'll be interesting to see," Obama told Time.