President Obama rolled out the major themes of his reelection bid in a speech in which he sought to capture public concern about rising economic inequality and wrap his policies in a call for a "fair shot" for America's middle class.
Growing inequality "is the defining issue of our time," Obama said in a nearly hourlong address here Tuesday. "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement."
The speech came at a strategically important point for the president. After a politically damaging summer, in which the long-drawn debate over raising the debt ceiling eroded his standing with voters, Obama and his aides have spent much of the fall trying to find ways to regain control of the public agenda. As they did so, Occupy Wall Street and related protests highlighted public concern over inequality — raising the volume on a debate that many Democrats welcome, but which Republicans have denounced as "class warfare."
One central problem the Democrats have faced is that although polls have shown deep concern over economic inequality and anxiety about the future of the middle class, many voters have remained unconvinced that either party's policies will address those problems.
Some Democratic strategists say that Obama's Ivy League education and dispassionate demeanor have helped make that a particular problem for him, causing a significant number of voters to identify him as part of "the 1%" of Americans who control most of the wealth in the country.
The new language, which Obama is expected to repeat often in the months to come, seems designed to directly address voter concerns about inequality. It pulled together the more populist, harder-hitting themes that Obama has tried out during the last couple of months.
To heighten the speech's impact, White House aides chose a venue with historical and political echoes. Just over a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to this same small, eastern Kansas town for one of his best-known addresses. In it, he laid out his "New Nationalism," with its call for progressive reforms and an active federal government committed to reining in the power of concentrated wealth.
Citing that precedent allowed Obama to put himself in a long line of national leaders who have sought to ally themselves with the middle class. Noting that the average income of the top 1% of the population had grown more than 250% over the last two decades while the income of most other Americans has stagnated, Obama said that "this kind of inequality — a level we haven't seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all."
"Inequality also distorts our democracy," he added. "It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder."
He sought to draw a sharp distinction between his views and those of his GOP opponents.
"I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules," he said.
Republicans, he charged, offer "the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years. Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."
The Republican theory of "trickle down" economics, he said, "speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here's the problem: It doesn't work. It's never worked."
The speech was notably light on new policy initiatives. As he has repeatedly, Obama called on Congress to extend the current payroll tax "holiday," and he pushed for the Senate to confirm Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general who is the president's nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"Republicans in the Senate refuse to let him do his job," Obama said. "Does anyone here think the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors? Of course not."
Instead of a long list of proposals, Obama emphasized his overall philosophy. Explicitly comparing his proposal to Roosevelt's, Obama noted that the 26th president, who was a Republican while in office, had been called a "socialist" and a "radical" for advocating a strong federal government. In doing so, Obama implicitly suggested that current Republicans, some of whom have aimed the same adjectives at him, had abandoned their party's legacy.
Roosevelt's speech in 1910, the year after he left the White House, backed child labor laws, which GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich has recently attacked as "foolish," and a strong inheritance tax, which present-day Republicans in Congress have sought to repeal. He warned against concentrated wealth and pushed for a ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns — which Obama defended but the Supreme Court overturned in 2010.
Aides said the speech grew in part out of a meeting Obama had about a month ago with a group of historians who talked with him about presidential first terms. Obama prepared for his speech in part by reading Roosevelt's, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly.
Identifying himself with the Republican Roosevelt could be a smart move, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written about the early part of the 20th century.
"He's trying to say, 'Look, good Americanism is doing what's right for the country at every moment in time,' " Brinkley said. " 'I'm not on the left. I'm not on the right. I'm doing what's right for America.' "
Republicans scoffed at Obama's efforts to align himself with Roosevelt, whose calls for corporate reform came when there was very little regulation of business. Roosevelt's talk of regulating the "use of wealth" for the national good meant something different in 1910, said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who accused Obama of trying to "exaggerate class warfare and embolden the cause for more government."
Obama advisors, however, said the speech's themes were ones that the president would focus on during the campaign.
"He has to create a sense of momentum and possibility, he has to inspire people," said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. "The Republicans have set the table well to draw a contrast between an economy that works for everyone, and a devotion to the status quo.
"Suburban professionals, Midwestern blue-dollar workers — they all aspire to succeed. They want to know that they can work hard and strive to achieve a version of the American dream," he said.
Dave French, a former middle school history teacher here who said he splits his votes between the two parties, found Obama's approach appealing. The nation's burden currently rests too heavily on the backs of the middle class and not enough on the wealthy, he said.
"I don't think it's fair right now," said French, sitting with his family in the high school gym where Obama spoke. "We're all Americans, and everyone needs to pitch in and do their share."