President Barack Obama told top U.S. bankers on Monday they owed the country their help in lifting the economy out of crisis and implored them to lend more money and get behind financial reforms.

Given the difficulty that businesspeople are having as lending has declined, and given the exceptional assistance banks received to get them through a difficult time, we expect them to explore every responsible way to help get our economy moving again, Obama said.

At a White House meeting with executives of major financial firms, Obama said he told them he had no intention of allowing lobbyists for the institutions to thwart legislation on financial reforms.

If they are willing to fight common sense consumer protections, that's a fight I'm willing to have, Obama said.

Criticized over its support for the $700 billion financial rescue package, the White House has sharpened its rhetoric toward the financial industry in recent weeks.

The Obama administration has been accused by both Democrats and Republicans of being too close to Wall Street.

The meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room lasted 1 1/2 hours, longer than expected.

Three of the 12 executives scheduled to attend the White House meeting attended by phone after their flight was canceled because of foggy weather.

Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO, Goldman Sachs; John Mack, chairman and CEO, Morgan Stanley; and Dick Parsons, chairman, Citigroup were not there in person.

In a sign of the discomfort big financial firms have experienced as recipients of taxpayer bailout funds, Citigroup announced a plan to repay the money it owes the government, which will allow it to escape restrictions on executive pay.

Having complained about fat cat bankers taking big bonuses, Obama said the lack of availability of credit to small businesses was a problem.

He said he was receiving letters from those firms saying they cannot get loans.

An army of lobbyists for banks and Wall Street firms, whose profits may be threatened, have fought for months to weaken and delay reforms, criticizing what they call an unneeded and costly intrusion on business.

Americans are outraged at the bonus practices of big banking firms.

Many blame the recklessness of Wall Street for causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and creating an economic mess that has led to double-digit unemployment.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and David Morgan; Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)