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Democrats Hoping for a Reversal of Fortunes

President Barack Obama can finally chalk up a win when he signs financial reform legislation into law this week. The trick now is to spin that victory into electoral gains this November, and both the White House and Democratic leaders are coordinating on a strategy they hope will make that happen.

After weeks of haggling, Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday at last overcame a GOP-led filibuster attempt and a budget point of order to pass the Wall Street reform package. The measure passed on a 60-39 vote, with the help of three Republicans, and despite the opposition of one Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.).

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters after the vote that the bill will be a boon for Democrats heading into the midterm elections, arguing that Members can use the soon-to-be law to assure their constituents that they took action to address the circumstances that led to the near-collapse of financial markets in 2008.

“We know how important this legislation is in Nevada. We can never, ever let this happen again. Had we not done this, it would have happened again,” Reid said. “This is going to be a tremendous plus in the elections, of course.”

And that vote is just one of many that Democrats can tout back home as proof that their steadfast focus for the past year and a half has been on improving the lives of average Americans, according to White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

“There’s great currency in this” for upcoming elections, Axelrod said during a Friday conference call.

“The larger point is … in so many of the things we’ve done, we’ve tried to address concerns people face in their daily lives, whether it’s people with pre-existing conditions in health reform who will be able to get care, or working families trying to send their kids to colleges but can’t get grants because there aren’t enough available,” he said.

In the case of financial reform, Axelrod said Democrats can now take credit for giving individuals “new rights relative to their credit card companies” and for limiting penalties on mortgage holders.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was right on message on Thursday at the enrollment ceremony for the Wall Street bill: She underscored that financial reform is not just a win for Obama and Democrats, but also a victory for average Americans.

“This legislation is one of the pillars of President Obama’s building a new foundation for a stronger economy and a fair society,” Pelosi said. It “is important to the economic stability of our country as well as of our middle class and each and every American family … I have today the extraordinary honor of signing a bill that promotes fairness for all Americans. That is an American value.”

A senior House Democratic aide said Members are particularly eager to tout passage of financial reform in their districts because, unlike health care, the public recognizes that it won’t suffer under it.

“As a messaging vehicle, Democrats across the board like this one because it’s us versus Wall Street. Nobody believes the baloney about how this is going to hurt banks,” the aide said.

Over the past week, the White House has been pressing Democratic lawmakers to try to draw a contrast between their efforts to improve Americans’ lives and GOP attempts to stop them from passing health care and financial reform.

“On all of these things, we’ve been on one side … and the Republican minority has been almost en masse opposed,” Axelrod argued. Voters have a “clear choice” between Republicans who want to “return to the policies that led to this crisis, and those of us who are trying to chart a better course for this country.”

The president pulled House and Senate Democratic leaders into separate meetings at the White House last week to urge action on Wall Street reform as part of a larger messaging strategy on the economy, the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds. Obama also encouraged Democrats to pass an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a small-business lending package before the August recess. The House is scheduled to leave town on July 30; the Senate is set to adjourn on Aug. 6.

Action on those three fronts will send a “fairly clear” message about Democratic priorities as lawmakers head home for the August recess, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said after the Obama meetings with Members.

“You’re going to get to decide whether there are new rules in the road for the way banks and Wall Street works, or you’re not. You’re going to get to decide whether you’re for helping the long-term unemployment or you’re not. You’re going to get to decide whether you think there should be increased lending for job creation in small business or not,” he said. “Those are votes that will be important and a conversation that will be important as we move into the fall.”

Obama, too, is increasingly leaning on rhetoric about Democrats being the party of everyday Americans. In his Saturday radio address, he accused Senate Republicans of trying to block “our recovery” and “our progress” by obstructing the unemployment insurance extension.

“Three times, the Senate has tried to temporarily extend that emergency assistance,” he said. “They’ve got no problem spending money on tax breaks for folks at the top who don’t need them and didn’t even ask for them, but they object to helping folks laid off in this recession who really do need help.”

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