ELYRIA, Ohio—President Barack Obama tried to relaunch his political agenda Friday with a populist attack on banks and insurance companies that signaled he would fight for his priorities going into the fall elections rather than give ground to Republicans on key issues.
Mr. Obama's campaign-style speech here capped one of the most bruising weeks of his year in office. The president traveled to this swing-state manufacturing town ostensibly to deliver a speech about jobs and the economy, but instead he repeatedly veered off-script to interject pledges to battle his political foes over health care and other issues "so long as I have breath in me."
Mr. Obama also took more jabs at Wall Street, despite continued signs of investor jitters Friday stemming from his proposal to impose levies on big banks. His voice rising, Mr. Obama defended the plan he announced Thursday as a way "to repay taxpayers in full for saving [banks'] skins in a time of need," and then delivered a line that got the day's biggest applause: "We want our money back. We want our money back! And we're going to get your money back—every dime, each and every dime."
As Mr. Obama spoke, the Dow Jones Industrial Average accelerated its decline, headed toward a loss of more than 200 points for the day. Analysts have attributed the blue chip stock index's decline this past week to factors including the administration's bank proposal, worries about the latest rise in jobless claims and uncertainty surrounding Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's chances for reconfirmation. Mr. Bernanke's term expires in less than two weeks.
Mr. Obama said he would continue to push for an overhaul of the health-care system, even as House and Senate Democrats appeared ready to retreat on the issue after Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy—giving the GOP enough Senate votes to block any legislation. Mr. Obama didn't say, though, how he might convince Republicans and wavering Democrats to back a health-care plan considered even by his allies to be an uphill climb.
Obama in Ohio
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with other patrons at Smitty's restaurant in Elyria, Ohio, Friday.
"I'm not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance-company bureaucrats," the president said. "I'm not going to have the insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket, because once again there's no control on what they do."
Those remarks followed a litany of more politically popular efforts to aid Ohio through the $787 billion federal economic-stimulus package, rein in credit-card interest rates and provide equal wages for women. The president's visit consisted of a day-long tour of manufacturers and a town-hall meeting.
The White House's stated goal in putting the spotlight on Elyria was to highlight administration efforts to spur job creation in a region hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs. But Mr. Obama's appearance coincided with new state figures showing Ohio's jobless rate climbed last month to 10.9%, from 10.6% in November, nearly a full point higher than the national average. National figures released Thursday showed a jump in the number of Americans who applied for jobless benefits, with claims rising 36,000 to 482,000 last week, the third straight week claims increased. Analysts had expected new claims to slip to 440,000.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio hammered hard on the unemployment issue in a statement on Mr. Obama's appearance.
"When he last visited Elyria, candidate Obama promised that as president he would enact a 'job creation agenda.' Yet for the past year, Ohioans have watched anxiously as Washington Democrats, with the approval of President Obama, have pushed a job-killing agenda," Mr. Boehner said.
President Obama takes questions Friday during a town-hall style meeting in Elyria, Ohio
Mr. Obama's turn toward populist rhetoric—mirroring in some ways the anger of the conservative populist movement that has helped to stall his agenda—carries risks. The stock market sell-off represents one of them: that business leaders wary of the administration's policies would be reluctant to invest in job-creating enterprises.
Moreover, Mr. Obama's display of anger with big financial institutions and insurers may not reassure voters who are dubious about his proposed solutions to the country's economic problems. That difficulty was evident from comments by Ohioans on Friday.
"I think his intentions are right, and the programs are wrong," said Wendell Brown, who manages an auto dealership in Elyria. Bashing banks and special interests works, Mr. Brown said, because "Everyone here is affected by job losses—I think you can't help but get fired up, but at the same time I didn't get any real clear, definite answer on what he's going to do to restore jobs."
Others were supportive of Mr. Obama's efforts. "He's going to make those who took excess money accountable," said Jennifer Streza-Ebenger, a retired teacher who lives in the city of Lorain. "He's a good guy, a good leader, and he knows what's happening in our county and in our state."