OSAWATOMIE, Kansas — President Barack Obama lashed out at the “gaping inequality” stalking America Tuesday, saying the middle class struggle to secure a decent life was the “defining issue of our time.”
Obama traveled to Kansas in a bid to commandeer the aura of barnstorming president Theodore Roosevelt, who battled the monopolistic industrial trusts of the early 20th Century and helped lay the groundwork for American prosperity.
The president also sought to capitalize on the anti-corporate fervor fanned by both the left-wing Occupy Wall Street Movement and the conservative Tea Party faction, as he fashions a strategy for his tough 2012 reelection bid.
“For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded,” Obama said.
“Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before,” Obama said, in the town where Roosevelt laid out a “square deal” for all Americans in a famous speech in 1910.
“But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t,” he said.
“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 condemned Republicans in Washington who have balked at raising taxes on millionaires to pay for his plans to tackle high unemployment and criticized conservatives who believed an unfettered market would ensure prosperity.
“It’s a simple theory — one that 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.”
Obama’s aides are trying to make the 2012 election a referendum on Republican economic policies they say are designed to shield the rich, erode the social safety net and fatten corporations.
“This isn’t just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time,” Obama said.
“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.”
Obama proscribed a new national commitment to education, and a drive to innovate to compete with US competitors in the emerging world, but argued the rich would have to pay higher taxes to allow the nation as a whole to prosper.
“We don’t have unlimited resources. And so we have to set priorities. If we want a strong middle class, then our tax code must reflect our values. We have to make choices,” Obama said.
Roosevelt, a bullish campaigner promised in his “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, that he would stand for a “square deal” for Americans.
“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.
White House say that Obama’s aims in seeking to constrain excesses on Wall Street and level the playing field are similar to those advanced by Roosevelt, who wanted to use the power of government to regulate unfettered capitalism.
“What is astounding about it when you read it is how much of it could be delivered today,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, of the speech by Roosevelt, who served as president between 1901 and 1909.
“Teddy Roosevelt… celebrated the remarkable progress that industry had made in America and that the free market had contributed to economic growth and job creation.
“But (he) said that we had to ensure that we set up rules of the road that ensure that everyone played by the same rules and everybody had a fair shot.”
The speech, delivered after Roosevelt’s two-term presidency, marked the start of a split between the famed campaigner and his fellow Republicans, and he would go on to unsuccessfully challenge for a return to the presidency in 1912 with a new Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party.