After zipping through the backyards and wallets of rich Democratic donors, President Obama concluded a West Coast fundraising swing on Thursday by trying to shift his focus back to the middle class.
In a speech at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, Obama revived his push to crack down on "corporate deserters," his description of U.S. companies that avoid paying taxes by reorganizing overseas. In a damning assessment, he accused the companies of "renouncing their U.S. citizenship" and "fleeing the country" while sticking U.S. taxpayers "with the tab."
"You shouldn't get to call yourself an American company only when you want a handout from the American taxpayer," Obama told about 2,000 people gathered under a blistering sun in the college courtyard.
The president's riff on corporate tax dodgers was cheered by the crowd at the campaign-style event, although his speech was initially interrupted by a man shouting religious phrases. The crowd drowned out the man's yelling with chants of "Obama!"
The remarks are part of a broader effort to return to a theme of economic populism, which boosted the president's reelection campaign and will be key to revving up Democrats for the November midterm election.
"Populism decides who wins elections in America," Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, told a group of reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Republicans are more than willing to point fingers at President Obama's economic policies and the size of government, saying that both have held back growth, Podhorzer said. Democrats need to counter that with a "message of economic fairness and economic well-being" aimed particularly at voters who are at or below the median income.
Besides engaging Democrats, who polls show are less enthused about the November election, Obama's speech was meant to temper criticism of a three-day West Coast swing that was largely devoted to raising money from wealthy donors.
"It's pretty clear President Obama doesn't want Americans to see his hypocrisy — he talks a big game about being for middle America while his economic policies have hurt middle America and his priority has been raising campaign money from wealthy donors," said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Thursday's speech was the only public event of his trip, during which Obama headlined six fundraisers, two each in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Obama spent Thursday morning at a fundraiser at the Pacific Palisades home of Live Nation Chief Executive and President Michael Rapino. On Wednesday evening, Obama appeared at a fundraiser at the Hancock Park home of television impresario Shonda Rhimes, creator of the hit ABC show "Scandal." About 450 supporters there contributed up to $32,400 each to the Democratic National Committee.
"It doesn't always feel like it when you are in someplace fancy, all dressed up, but you're being an activist, right? You really are," Rhimes said Wednesday while introducing the president to guests gathered in the poolside courtyard of her Spanish-style home, where hovering waiters offered champagne on silver trays.
During the event, Obama urged Democrats to be active in the midterm election, when their ardor typically lags, and skewered Republicans for pushing "phony scandals."
"No offense, 'Scandal' is a great show, but it's not necessarily something we want to be living day in and day out," he said.
Obama's public target on Thursday was so-called inversion transactions, a practice that allows U.S. companies to reincorporate overseas, either through a merger or purchase of a foreign entity, and thus avoid paying U.S. taxes on its foreign earnings. The practice is often used by companies even as they retain a U.S. headquarters and continue to do much of their business in the U.S., senior administration officials said this week in advance of Obama's remarks.
The president acknowledged the practice is legal, but said, "It's wrong."
Obama endorsed a legislative move to close the loophole quickly, saying lawmakers don't need to wait until they can agree on a larger corporate tax reform plan to pass.
Shortly before the speech, Obama dropped into Canter's Deli in the Fairfax district, a visit meant to emphasize that he is more man-of-the-people than man-of-the-moneyed. Obama struck up conversations with diners about basketball, his failing jump shot and other regular-guy concerns.
After one man asked him about his game, Obama replied, "My shot's broke."
"It's my elbow. It's my age," he said, holding his arm up in the air. "I get the chicken wing."
Basketball talk was not the aim of the appearance, however; the main reason was a meeting with four people who, the White House said, had taken time to write Obama letters. The president has held similar meetings elsewhere, part of his party's push to convince voters that he and fellow Democrats stand with them.
Among the people he met at Canter's was Kati Koster, who wrote to Obama in March about how she earned a master's degree but finds it tough to pay her student loans.
During his speech at Trade-Tech, Obama held up Koster as a model of struggling Americans, and used her story to attack his opponents.
"If you're in public office … and if you're not thinking about her and folks who are working hard but still struggling every day, why are you in public service?" Obama said.
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.