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Obama decries inequality in speech previewing 2012


President Barack Obama outlined the underpinnings of his case for re-election on Tuesday, suggesting the upcoming election is a "make-or-break moment for the middle class."

Obama, speaking in the town where Theodore Roosevelt delivered his "New Nationalism" speech, delivered a rousing defense of his administration's efforts to help the middle class. It was a glimpse of what could easily become a 2012 stump speech, keying in heavily on a sense of rising inequality, and accusing Republicans of supporting policies that would only make things worse for that demographic.

"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," the president said.

The speech offered the most complete case yet by Obama against Republicans ahead of 2012's bruising election. That contest is expected to hinge primarily on the economy, and Obama will be forced to overcome the poor economic climate that has dogged the U.S. since the 2008 financial crisis.

"Ever since, there has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; to restore balance, to restore fairness. Throughout the country, it has sparked protests and political movements -- from the Tea Party to the people who have been occupying the streets of New York and other cities. It’s left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. And it’s been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women who are running for president," he said, directly acknowledging the looming election.

Democrats are betting on inequality as a winning message for them in 2012. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, Democrats' messaging chief in the Senate, told The Washington Post recently that it's key to his party's success in next fall's elections.

The Kansas speech assailed Republicans for supporting policies that, Obama said, would only contribute to growing inequality.

"That theory fits well on a bumper sticker," he said. "But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war booms of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade."

Obama drew parallels between himself and Roosevelt in the speech to lay down a marker of sorts before the political high season. Roosevelt had left the Republican Party to run for president as a third party candidate during his "New Nationalism" speech in Osawatomie in 1910. The address, delivered by Roosevelt after he had left the presidency but was seeking to reclaim it, outlined a vision for a proactive federal government that looked out for its citizens' needs; it's a precursor to modern progressivism.

"I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service," Roosevelt said in the speech. (Click here to read read Roosevelt's full speech.)

Obama asserted that Roosevelt faced challenges from free-market absolutists at the turn of the 20th century that mirror today's debates in Washington. Obama hailed Roosevelt's speech for encouraging a government that worked to make the economy fairer for Americans, and cast himself as governing in that mold. The crowd in Osawatomie chuckled when Obama noted that Roosevelt was called a socialist for his efforts -- a charge often leveled by Republicans against Obama.

The speech was a kind of summation of Obama's work to stump for his jobs bill throughout the fall. Obama had traveled to promote different parts of his American Jobs Act, delivering speeches that served both legislative and political purposes, and setting up a campaign by Obama against "do-nothing" Republicans in Congress.

The GOP, in turn, has accused the White House of being focused intently on electoral politics instead of the business of governing. They have accused the president of class warfare for calling for higher taxes on the wealthy in order to finance his recent jobs proposals. ("This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare," Obama said Tuesday in what seemed like a pre-emptive response to Republicans.)

The speech contained a litany of the administration's initiatives that Obama is sure to reference next year on the campaign trail, too. He promoted his financial regulatory reform bill as an effort to rein in the excesses on Wall Street, and scolded Republicans for blocking his nominee to head a new consumer protection bureau created by that law. Obama defended greater spending on education and regulatory reforms, and promoted his decision early in 2009 to assist General Motors and Chrysler.

But the overarching point of the speech seemed directed at crafting Obama's narrative for 2012. He nodded toward Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party -- movements on the left and right, respectively, to have grown out of economic frustration over the past few years. Obama blamed Republicans for the policies to have led to such a dire situation, and positioned himself as their opposite.

"Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia ... In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years," the president said. "I’m here to say they are wrong.  I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. 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. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them."