President Barack Obama delivered a sweeping indictment of economic inequality in the U.S. on Tuesday as he summoned the memory of President Theodore Roosevelt and pledged to fight for fairness at a "make or break moment for the middle class."
Only a month before Republican voters begin choosing a presidential nominee, Obama traveled to small-town Osawatomie, Kan., where Roosevelt delivered his "New Nationalism" address in 1910, to embrace the progressive reformer's calls for a "square deal" for regular Americans.
Obama warned of the unraveling of the American dream, and called for giving hurting middle-class workers a fair shake and restoring financial security — themes he's certain to return to throughout the 2012 campaign.
"This isn't just another political debate. This 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," Obama told a crowd in the Osawatomie High School gym, where red, white and blue bunting lined the bleachers.
"Because 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," he said.
Taking aim at Republicans, Obama said: "Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. Well, I'm here to say they are wrong."
Obama's speech delved into the theme of inequality of income and opportunity, which the White House sees as a major force in current politics, but it was short on new ideas for pulling the country out of its economic doldrums.
For Obama, after focusing recently on mostly small-bore executive actions he can take without Congress, and on pressing reluctant lawmakers to pass pieces of his jobs proposal including a payroll tax holiday, Tuesday's speech was a chance to lay out a more sweeping philosophy for his re-election campaign.
Noting that the typical CEO now earns 110 times more than his workers, Obama attempted to sum up the pain and peril for a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening, and the middle class is struggling.
"This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try," Obama said. "We tell people that in this country, even if you're born with nothing, hard work can get you into the middle class; and that your children will have the chance to do even better than you. ... And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk."
Obama said that the wealthiest should do more — but that the GOP refused to ask them to.
Republicans, meanwhile, noted that Roosevelt had also used the speech Obama cited to denounce broken promises in politics. They said Obama had fallen short of rebuilding the economy, reducing the debt and curtailing special interests.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the president was "desperately trying new slogans and messages to see what sticks because he can't figure out how to sell his last three years of high unemployment and more debt."