WASHINGTON (AP) – The growing intensity of public fear and anger has caught Washington and Wall Street by surprise.

So much has changed in the past few weeks, even days, partly because of deepening economic woes, partly perhaps because Americans now have much higher expectations with the arrival of the new president and his promises of change. Politicians and business people are scrambling to keep from falling dangerously out of touch with the people who vote, pay taxes and buy products.

Not so long ago, the resentment could have been shrugged off. Not this week.

First, former Sen. Tom Daschle seemed to have enough Senate support in hand to be confirmed as secretary of health and human services. But he suddenly withdrew his name amid signs that many Americans, seeing jobs vanish by the millions, are seething over powerful people who don’t pay taxes while cashing in on their public service.

Then President Barack Obama slapped a $500,000 cap on executive pay for the most troubled financial institutions that are receiving federal bailout money. Americans, he said, are fed up with “executives being rewarded for failure.”

Business titans expressed shock at the extraordinary federal reach into corporate boardrooms.

Washington seemed to be waking up.

“It took Washington a year to tell us that we were in a recession, when working people knew it for a full year,” said Bret Caldwell, a spokesman for the Teamsters union. “There’s a delay here in feeling the pain that our members have been dealing with,” he said.

If elected officials were behind the curve this winter, corporate executives proved downright tone deaf. Hardly accustomed to heeding voters’ sentiments or lawmakers’ whims, they now are asking for billions of dollars in taxpayer money, and the cultural ground is shifting under their feet.

In November, top auto executives were berated for doing something once commonplace – taking private jets to Washington – when they came to ask for public money. A few weeks later, the chastened executives traveled in hybrid cars and commercial airplanes.

But some business leaders didn’t seem to get the message. Wall Street firms paid more than $18 billion in bonuses last year, even as the economy collapsed and Congress began pumping in billions of dollars in taxpayer aid.

Wells Fargo & Co., which received $25 billion in bailout money, waited until Tuesday to cancel events at two high-end Las Vegas hotels that included a plush four-day employee sales conference.

Obama often cited workers’ fears and resentments during his presidential campaign, separating himself from what he called Republican indifference. Soon after being elected, he told NBC’s “Meet the Press:” “Taxpayers, I think, are fed up. They’re going though extraordinarily difficult times right now, and they want to see the kind of accountability” that has been missing in Washington.

On his first full day as president, Obama set tighter limits on former and future lobbyists entering and leaving his administration. But even the new president seemed a step slow this week in acknowledging the depth of public anger over unpaid taxes and huge salaries for corporate or government big shots.

He had stood fast against critics of Timothy Geithner, his pick for treasury secretary, when it was learned that Geithner had failed to pay more than $34,000 in taxes when due.

Similarly, Obama appeared ready to fight for Daschle, a friend and mentor, for the HHS job. But some Republicans and talk show hosts hammered at Daschle’s belated payment of more than $128,000 in taxes, and his receipt of $5.2 million over two years from various government-regulated industries. Hours after the New York Times’ editorial page called for Daschle to withdraw, he did just that. Obama appeared humbled.

“I’ve got to own up to my mistake,” he told NBC News on Tuesday night. “Ultimately it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules, you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”

At the same time, the White House was signaling its plans for the executive compensation limits, something that politicians have long talked about but not acted on.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has led the effort, calling Wall Street executives “idiots” and warning fellow lawmakers of a rising populist fury. She hailed Obama’s actions Wednesday. They will help “restore the confidence of the American people that we have some idea of what’s going on,” she said.

But corporate pay limits and Daschle’s withdrawal alone will not convince working Americans that their government fully understands their pain, labor leaders say.

Furious workers spoke up when car-manufacturing executives flew private jets to Washington while auto plants were closing or scaling back, said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

“I think we’re going to see more of that among workers across America who are going to say ‘No more,”‘ she said.


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