Obama to Channel ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Populism on Bus Tour

Susan Walsh/AP Photo

President Obama says his three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia is about selling his jobs plan to the American people. But the battleground-state road trip is just as much a test drive of Obama’s messaging for his re-election campaign.

Obama will likely use his stump speeches to tap into the populism of the Occupy Wall Street protests, expressing solidarity with Americans’ economic frustrations while emphasizing his efforts to enact financial regulations that Republicans have opposed.

Republicans “want to let Wall Street do whatever it wants,” Obama told a friendly crowd in Asheville, N.C., the first stop of his trip, drawing boos in support of his point.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that the president identifies with the grievances raised by the protesters and believes his policies demonstrate that he’s on their side.

“The president has expressed an understanding of the frustration that the demonstrations manifest and represent,” Carney said. “There is frustration now, I believe, with the efforts by some to roll back the protections the president fought so hard to put into place through the Wall Street reform act that was passed and signed into law.”

Congressional Republicans and all the leading 2012 GOP presidential candidates favor repealing Obama’s financial regulatory law, known as Dodd-Frank, even though a majority of Americans support the law.

“I don’t think any American is impressed when they see Gov. [Mitt] Romney and all the Republican candidates say the first thing they’d do is roll back Wall Street reforms and go back to where we were before the crisis and let Wall Street write its own rules,” chief Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said Sunday in interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think that will be an issue in this campaign.”

Obama’s campaign aides believe the stark political divide over the law, and the popular opinion and economic frustration expressed during the grassroots protests of the past five weeks, offer a chance for the president to make inroads with voters.

Seven in 10 Americans have an unfavorable impression of the financial institutions on Wall Street, according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.

“The president will continue to acknowledge the frustration that he himself shares about the need for Washington to do more to support our economic recovery and to ensure that the interest of the 99 percent of Americans is well-represented,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Sunday, invoking the slogan of the protests: “99 percent.”

But top Republicans in North Carolina and Virginia say the president’s messaging related to the protests carries risks in their states, which Obama carried in 2008 and seeks to keep blue in 2012.

“The president is vacuuming money out of Wall Street,” North Carolina GOP chairman Robin Hayes said, alluding to the president’s re-election campaign funds, which include millions of dollars from the financial sector. “Where’s his credibility?”

Virginia GOP chairman Pat Mullins, who recently visited the protest site in lower Manhattan, said the protesters are “disgusting” and “despicable,” and could potentially tarnish the image of the president.

“You’ve got to wonder why any leader of the free world would condone this kind of thing or even encourage it,” he said, citing several incidents during which members of the movement clashed with law enforcement.

A Time magazine poll conducted Oct. 9-10 found that 54 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the Occupy Wall Street movement, compared to 13 percent who have a “very unfavorable” opinion.