By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, on the attack against Republicans, visited his new consumer financial protection agency chief on Friday to praise the agency's mission while urging Congress to extend a payroll tax cut through the end of the year.
On the offensive in the first week of the presidential and congressional election year, Obama has sought to use the financial watchdog agency he created to underpin his campaign platform as a champion of the middle class running against a gridlocked Congress.
Obama's approval ratings have improved since he successfully pushed Republicans in the House of Representatives in December to accept a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.
The White House wants to maintain that momentum, and Obama on Friday said Congress "should extend the middle class tax cut for all of this year to make sure we keep this (economic) recovery going."
Standing beside Richard Cordray, whom he appointed on Wednesday as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau despite Senate Republicans' objections, Obama said the watchdog agency will shield ordinary Americans from being tricked by the financial industry.
"Every one of you here has a critical role to play in making sure that everybody plays by the same rules, to make sure that the big banks on Wall Street play by the same rules as community banks on Main Street," he said.
Republicans opposed Cordray and warned that the agency could hurt the U.S. economy by burdening the financial industry with red tape that would reduce hiring.
With Senate Republicans blocking the nomination, Obama moved to install Cordray while Congress was on its holiday break.
White House strategists hope the creation of the bureau will persuade voters that Obama is standing up for ordinary Americans, while Republicans side with big banks and the wealthy few.
"That's your mission, to make sure that the American people have somebody in their corner, that American consumers have somebody who's got their back," Obama said.
That populist message also taps into public anger toward big banks bailed out by U.S. taxpayers in 2008.
The consumer financial watchdog, a part of Obama's financial services industry overhaul, is designed to police the sort of excessive lending practices that contributed to the 2007-2009 subprime mortgage crisis and a severe U.S. recession.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Vicki Allen)