WASHINGTON — Message from liberals to President Barack Obama: Your economic message is muddled, go after Wall Street harder.
With the November election looming, some of the president's most ardent backers are fretting that the incumbent Democrat isn't successfully making the case for a second term at a time of economic turmoil. And they argue that he should sharpen his message by taking a firm stand against the financial sector's excesses.
"If he really took on Wall Street big time, if he told the story of how Wall Street are villains, made them the enemy, we could take them down," Paul Sasso, a 47-year-old liberal from San Diego, said this week. "To me, that could win him the election, I'm sure."
It was a sentiment similarly expressed by more than a dozen other self-described progressive activists attending this week's Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington.
Some said that the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement had been disappointingly absent from Obama's message. Others implored the president to pressure Republican challenger Mitt Romney to reveal the big-dollar donors who are fueling his campaign by "bundling" contributions from smaller donors. Activists also said they were put off by what they called Obama's lack of exasperation when efforts to regulate Wall Street post-recession fell short of what many had demanded.
"Obama's catering too much to Wall Street," said Mark McDermott, a retiree from Seattle. "We gave those banks billions of dollars, and we didn't break them up. They're sitting on the money and their profits are sky-high again, and we're supposed to be happy about this?"
He pointed to Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who faced a less-than-bruising round of questions from Congress over $2 billion in trading losses.
Less than five months before the election, the economy and related issues such as income disparity are shaping a presidential campaign that polls show is competitive.
Romney argues that his decades of experience in the business world make him qualified to turn around the economy, and that his Democratic opponent is out of touch with the challenges facing companies that want to expand their payrolls.
Obama, in turn, contends that he needs more time to continue promoting economic growth, and that Romney would return to failed Bush-era policies.
His message seemed lost on at least some of the progressives here this week.
Karen Joseph closed her eyes and paused for 20 seconds when asked to describe Obama's economic pitch.
"Oh, gosh, I don't know," said Joseph, a homemaker and Obama supporter from Youngstown, Ohio. "That we have a right to a middle class?"
McDermott, for his part, said: "I don't think his own plan is particularly clear."
An Obama spokesman declined to comment on the liberals' assertion that Obama has largely given Wall Street a free pass.
Liberals have groused about Obama since he was elected, lamenting a lack of progress on issues they hold dear. Even so, most liberal voters are expected to vote for Obama in November over Romney. But there's no guarantee that liberals – if they continue to be dissatisfied – will turn out to staff phone banks and canvass neighborhoods this fall. The president's fundraising efforts also could take a hit.
The liberals' latest beef is that the president needs to take the fight to Wall Street, in the style of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate nominee in liberal-leaning Massachusetts. She has built a national brand around the us-versus-them rhetoric that took root over the past year in the encampments of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
For Obama, taking up the Occupy cause as overtly as that would be risky in the dozen or so competitive states that will determine who wins the White House. Turn up the heat on Wall Street too far and he may give ammunition to Romney and Republicans, who are eager to paint the president as anti-business and hostile to those who create jobs.
Such was the case in May, when Obama attempted to tie Romney's record at private-equity firm Bain Capital to an obsession with profits, and added that "a lot of business people" were similarly focused.
Prominent Democrats criticized the tactic, giving Romney and Republicans fodder to argue that Obama was demeaning the very people who create American jobs.
"Class warfare does not work in this country. We've seen it tried time and time again. And when it does work, it doesn't sustain itself," said John Weaver, a top strategist for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
Being more combative against Wall Street also could backfire on the fundraising front, drying up crucial cash sources.
"New York banks are the ATM of American politics. It's just that simple," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist in New York. "You alienate them, you don't get the kind of campaign contributions you think you should."