Speaking in the Kansas town where former President Teddy Roosevelt took a radical turn a century ago, President Obama Tuesday said the widening gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is "the defining issue of our time."
"This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class," Mr. Obama said at a high school in Osawatomie. "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 president again pressed for action from Congress on an extension of payroll-tax cuts, part of his $447 billion jobs package. But Mr. Obama went far beyond his jobs bill in the address, launching a broad defense of more government regulation and higher taxes on the wealthy.
He also displayed a confrontational "us-versus-them" attitude as a preview of his re-election campaign themes, blaming George W. Bush-era tax cuts for burgeoning deficits and attacking conservatives' advocacy of a free-market economy as an idea that has "never worked."
"There's been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune: 'The market will take care of everything,' they tell us," Mr. Obama said. "If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes - especially for the wealthy - our economy will grow stronger. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here's the problem: It doesn't work."
He said the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 produced "the slowest job growth in half a century" and "massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country."
"We simply cannot return to this brand of 'you're-on-your-own' economics if we're serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country," Mr. Obama said. "We know that it doesn't result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and its future. It doesn't result in a prosperity that trickles down."
No mention was made of the trillion-dollar-budget deficits Mr. Obama has accumulated in each of his three years as president.
Mr. Obama's choice of Osawatomie for his speech drew on the legacy of Roosevelt, a Republican who served as president from 1901 to 1909. Roosevelt delivered his "New Nationalism" speech in Osawatomie in 1910, promising Americans a "square deal."
Roosevelt's speech marked his turn from a moderate to a more radical politician who pursued "the anti-capitalist state," said Matt Spalding, vice president of American Studies at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.
"Going to that place and evoking that speech tells us a lot about where Obama is coming from," Mr. Spalding said. "He's going to be running his campaign on class warfare and the regulatory state."
The president has been locked in a battle with congressional Republicans over raising taxes on wealthier wage earners to pay for various parts of his jobs bill. He told the audience, "So far, most of the Republicans in Washington have refused, under any circumstances, to ask the wealthiest Americans to [pay] the same tax rates they were paying when Bill Clinton was president."
Mr. Obama said America faced similar problems of income inequality at the turn of the last century, and praised Roosevelt for trying to restore social balance.
"Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can," Mr. Obama said. "Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax."
Mr. Roosevelt, didn't fare well politically after Osawatomie. He failed to get the Republican nomination in 1912, ran as a third-party candidate, survived an assassination attempt and took away enough votes from incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft to allow Democrat Woodrow Wilson to get elected.
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