Obama Taps Into Populist Vein

Speech in Kansas positions Democrats as the party of fairness.

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President Obama reached at least one objective with his much-ballyhooed economics speech at Osawatomie, Kansas. He focused attention on a populist message that he is on the side of Middle America and the Republicans are protectors of the rich and powerful.

Whether the voters buy into this message and re-elect Obama next year remains to be seen. But the underlying political truth is that Obama is trying to tap into rising opposition to the status quo that has motivated the Occupy movement across the country and has caused eight of 10 Americans to conclude that their country is on the wrong track. Obama and his advisers have concluded that economic resentment and anger are running so deep that it's best for them to start riding the wave as quickly as possible. In short, it looks like Obama will run as a populist, or at least a quasi-populist, in 2012.

In his speech, Obama warned that growing income inequality is undermining the middle class and contradict "the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try." [See the latest political cartoons.]

He added: "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. 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 condemned "breathtaking greed" in American culture and pointed out that the top 1 per cent of Americans have seen their average income grow more than 250 per cent, to $1.2 million a year, while Middle America suffers. This use of the "1 percent" figure is the same contrast made by the populist Occupy Wall Street activists.[Occupy movement goes from Wall Street to Main Street.]

Republicans, including presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, take a dim view of Obama's remarks. They say he is waging class warfare and making polarization even worse. They add that Obama's program really amounts to the excessive use of the federal government to over-tax and over-regulate, which will hurt the economy and limit job creation. [Can Gingrich beat Obama?]

Obama's aides previewed the speech by underscoring that the president wanted to emulate Theodore Roosevelt in taking on entrenched power. Roosevelt gave a fiery populist speech in Osawatomie 101 years ago as he prepared to run for president in 1912 as head of the Bullmoose party. He had served in the White House from 1901-1909 as a Republican. But in 1912, Roosevelt lost.

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