Obama Blasts Republicans and Wall Street in Populist Economic Speech

President Barack Obama blasted his Republican foes and Wall Street on Tuesday as he portrayed himself as a champion of the middle class and laid out in the starkest terms yet the populist themes of his 2012 re-election bid.

aying out a populist argument for his re-election next year, President Obama ventured into the conservative heartland on Tuesday to deliver his most pointed appeal yet for a strong governmental role through tax and regulation to level the economic playing field. Photo: The Seo Duke/Flickr

Declaring the American middle class in jeopardy, President Barack Obama on Tuesday outlined a populist economic vision that will drive his re-election bid, insisting the United States must reclaim its standing as a country in which everyone can prosper if provided “a fair shot and a fair share.”

In small-town Osawatomie, in a high school gym where patriotic bunting lined the bleachers, Obama presented himself as the one fighting for shared sacrifice and success against those who would gut government and let people fend for themselves. He did so knowing the nation is riven over the question of whether economic opportunity for all is evaporating.

“This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules,” Mr. Obama said in an address that sought to tie his economic differences with Republicans into an overarching message.

Obama’s broader message was a sweeping call for the working class to get a “fair shot” and a “fair share” as he pushed for wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes and demanded that big corporate interests play by the rules.

“This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make or break moment for the middle class,” Obama told a cheering crowd in a high school gymnasium in Osawatomie, Kansas.

“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.

Mr. Obama purposefully chose this hardscrabble town of 4,500 people, about 50 miles south of Kansas City, Kan., where Theodore Roosevelt once laid out the progressive platform he called “the New Nationalism” to put forth his case for a payroll tax cut and his broader arguments against the Republican economic agenda in what his aides hoped would be viewed as a defining speech.

Obama tied himself to Roosevelt, the president and reformer who came to this town in eastern Kansas and called for a “square deal” for regular Americans. Roosevelt said then the fight for progress was a conflict “between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.”

Obama noted that Theodore Roosevelt was called a “radical, a socialist, even a communist” for putting forth ideas in his last campaign such as an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage for women, unemployment insurance and a progressive income tax.

Mitt Romney, one of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, dismissed the president’s address. “I thought, ‘In what way is he like Teddy Roosevelt?’ ” Mr. Romney said. “Teddy Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party. One of those words applies when the president talks about how he’s helped the economy.”

With the election just 11 months away, Obama’s speech was part of a strategy to cast the Republicans as the party beholden to the rich and blame them for obstructing his efforts to boost the fragile economy and slash high unemployment, considered crucial to his re-election chances.

“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,” he said.

Obama used his speech to accuse Republicans of suffering from “collective amnesia” about the recent financial crisis, and he strongly defended his Wall Street regulatory overhaul that many Republicans opposed and want to roll back.

He said he would call for legislation to toughen penalties against Wall Street companies that break anti-fraud rules.

“Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more,” Obama said.

He again prodded Republican lawmakers to extend the expiring payroll tax cut beyond this year.

Obama also challenged the big banks that took bailouts from American taxpayers, pointing to “a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street.” He said banks that were bailed out had an obligation to work to close that trust deficit and should be doing more to help remedy past mortgage abuses and assist middle-class taxpayers.

After the speech Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer commented that “President Obama is attempting to energize Democrats for the campaign, define himself as something more than a passive president and take populism back from the Tea Party.” [via Huffington Post, The New York Times and Reuters]

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