Obama's Challenge: A Nation of Santellis

When CNBC’s Rick Santelli argued last week that President Barack Obama’s mortgage bailout plan would force hard-working Americans to pay for their neighbors’ mistakes, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed him as a know-nothing derivatives trader out of touch with Main Street.

But if the White House simply dismisses Santelli’s point, it may do so at its peril: A Rasmussen poll released Monday found that 55 percent of those surveyed thought federal mortgage subsidies to those most at risk of losing their homes would be “rewarding bad behavior.”

Santelli’s “Network”-style diatribe has already spawned a Facebook group and plans for “tea parties” protesting the bailout in major cities including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s group FreedomWorks has spun off a site called angryrenter.com to organize those who don’t own their homes to oppose the mortgage plan.

And it’s not just Republicans who are complaining.

Although Obama still floats on air among Democrats generally, he’ll need to use Tuesday night’s unofficial State of the Union address to build support for his housing plan even among members of his own party; according to the Rasmussen poll, even 49 percent of Democrats oppose mortgage subsidies like the ones Obama has proposed.

Among them: Lynn Powers, 39, a Bethesda, Md., resident who describes herself as a “liberal Democrat” who has been hardworking, prudent and responsible — and now feels “like a fool.”

“We were in the market,” she says. “We put out eight bids and got outbid every time. It was very upsetting for us. I want to see some accountability and responsibility across the board. The only way for me to have an affordable home, and I’m not looking for a McMansion at all, is if we let the chips fall, in a sense. This is still the bubble — the prices have to come down. You can’t just subsidize some of the people. I don’t know how you deleverage. It is going to be painful, but this is also hurting the people who behaved responsibly.”

What does she mean by “responsibly”?

“People who didn’t over-buy. Who stuck to their guns. Who read their contracts,” she says. She and her husband wound up buying a 600-square-foot studio and moved to a rental when they had their daughter, now 18 months old.

“My husband and I paid for our cars in cash,” she says. “We have no credit card debt. We have no student loans. I don’t buy Starbucks, but that’s because they’re non-fair trade, non-environmental.”

When they tried to buy a house she said, “We just felt outgunned.” And now, she says, “I feel very outgunned as a citizen.”

Concurs another Maryland resident: “I am an Obama supporter, campaigned for him, baked cookies for him, my husband and I are Democrats all the way, but this is the issue that gets our goat.”

Echoing Santelli’s complaint, the Silver Spring mom, who did not want her name used, adds: “I’m not sure why we should work and pay for someone else to have a granite countertop or an extra bathroom.”

When asked about people who hadn’t overreached, but had lost their down-payment money when the value of their homes had dropped, she replied, “We put money in a 401k, and we lost that money, and no one is going to give it back.”

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who founded the House Populist Caucus, says the president has actually gone “to great lengths” not to reward people who have been irresponsible, and that the plan is really an effort to stem another wave of foreclosures in order to stabilize the housing market, which would be to everyone’s benefit.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, also a Democrat, concurs: “This is not directed at those who didn’t play by the rules,” she says. “It’s directed at trying to fix a system so everyone can stay in their homes and so that everyone’s community is not negatively affected by the foreclosures that are popping up all over that neighborhood.”

Still, notes Braley, “I just don’t think that that message has been said often enough and loud enough that people are starting to accept it as a justification of this plan.”

Braley says he expects the president to “go into more detail about how average homeowners are going to benefit on this” during his speech to a joint session of Congress.

Like Braley, Alyssa Katz, author of “Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us,” a book due out in June about the making of the mortgage crisis, says she does not believe the message has come through clearly enough yet — and that the administration needs to do more to make sure it does.

“Ultimately, yes, it’s about homeowners, but it’s about the stability of the financial markets,” she says. “We have to give up this illusion that it’s about you and me. We have to accept, sort of blindly, the notion that we have to do this for the sake of the nation. Whether you’re lucky and get aid or you already lost your home and you’re screwed, we’re all in this together.”

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