03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Barack Can Get His Groove Back

"Mr. Obama, this is your wakeup call."

That loud voice from the voters of Massachusetts needs to be heeded by President Obama and his party. Don't hit the snooze button; you need to get up right away and go to work.

The stunning loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat certainly does not appear to be a good thing for the President or the Democrats. Yet it could turn out to be just what they need to get them back on track.

The enormous discrepancy between Barack Obama's personal approval rating and the ratings the public gives to his accomplishments -- a gap of about 25 points -- indicates the opportunity he still has to regain his political footing and turn the widespread public anger to his advantage.

The level of anger felt by the American people is entirely understandable and justified. The principal target of the anger ought to be -- and to a large extent is -- Wall Street and the unbridled greed of the financial sector.

Mr. Obama's biggest mistake has been his failure to separate himself from what populists of old simply termed "the Interests."

The public certainly doesn't favor the Republicans. That party scarcely makes an attempt to hide its support for "the Interests." Republicans are winning because they are the only available stick to pick up and use to hit the President and the Democrats to try to make them realize that we, the people, want a President and a party that are on our side.

The American people feel that they have been assaulted and robbed by the big financial interests, and they are correct in that feeling. Essentially all President Obama needs to do to regain the momentum is to stop letting himself appear to be first chair of the defense team for the assailants and instead take the lead in their prosecution.

He has begun to take steps in that direction by pushing financial reform, but he has not gone nearly far enough or been forceful enough. Here's what he needs to do:

  • Focus his energies on attacks on banks, credit card companies, and greed. A completed bill on financial sector reform, with real teeth, should be readied for votes in Congress as soon as possible. Let the Republicans filibuster that, if they dare.
  • Draft a national usury law, send it to Congress and publicize it as much as possible. Nothing, with the possible exception of Wall Street bonuses, so enrages the American people as the grand larceny being engaged in by credit card companies. Nothing else would as clearly draw a line between "us" and "them" and demonstrate the President is on the "us" side.
  • Use the State of the Union address to come out foursquare against the culture of greed and the Interests, and to explain to the American public that the government is only their enemy when it aligns itself with those true enemies of the people, as it has done so often in the past and has at least been perceived as doing in the first year of the Obama Administration.
  • Decide immediately on one of two strategies to pass healthcare reform: preferably use reconciliation in the Senate to pass a real reform that the public can appreciate--one that contains the "public option," or go ahead and have the House pass the Senate bill while making it clear that further, more fundamental reform proposals will follow.

The bottom line is simple: All President Obama needs to do to rally a substantial majority of the American people to his side is to make it clear that he is on their side and against their real enemies.

Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. A 25th anniversary edition of his classic book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, with a comprehensive new introduction comparing circumstances then and now, has just been published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.