Obama targets rich to kick-start 2012 campaign
If ever a single speech launched a president's re-election campaign, it was the one Barack Obama delivered this week in a small Midwestern town – a populist call to arms that pitched fairness and social justice against a Republican party bent only on helping the rich get even richer.
For his venue, Mr Obama chose Osawatomie in eastern Kansas, population just 4,600 but the site of President Theodore Roosevelt's famous "square deal" speech 101 years ago, which lambasted big business and special interests and called for a strong central government to stand up for the rights of ordinary Americans.
On Tuesday, the current Democratic occupant of the White House wrapped himself in the mantle of his distant Republican predecessor to show how far today's Republican party has strayed from the principles enunciated by a man seen as one of America's greatest presidents.
In his speech, Mr Obama described the division between his own and Republican economic policies as "the defining issue of our time". He said the 2012 election was arriving at a "make or break moment for the middle class" – a moment when the gap between rich Americans and the rest, the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent in the lingo of the Occupy Wall Street movement – is wider than at any time since the 1929 stock market crash.
More explicitly than ever, he condemned the Republicans' devotion to "trickle-down economics", whereby lower taxes for the rich would create jobs and prosperity for everyone. "It fits well on a bumper sticker," Mr Obama said. "Here's the problem: it doesn't work; it never has worked."
The Obama-Roosevelt parallel is not exact. When Mr Roosevelt spoke in Osawatomie in 1910, he was no longer President, but a breakaway Republican setting out his platform for the campaign he would wage, unsuccessfully, to recapture the White House two years later. Mr Obama, by contrast, is an incumbent with a record to defend, at a time of deep economic crisis. Last but not least, by nature he is no populist.
But polls suggest the US public is more inclined to agree with him than with his Republican opponents who insist on much smaller government and refuse to countenance tax increases for the very wealthy to help pay for measures to save jobs and reduce the tax burden on lower earners.
These measures include an extended reduction in payroll taxes proposed by Mr Obama as part of the $450bn (£290bn) American Jobs Act he sent to Congress in September. That bill is now blocked by Republicans, who accuse the President of "waging class warfare". But what Republicans call class warfare will now be Mr Obama's theme in an election set to be dominated by economic issues.
The strategy emerged after the debt-ceiling debacle last summer. In Osawatomie, Mr Obama made the strategy official.