Obama: New income inequality rhetoric, old policies

@CNNMoney December 7, 2011: 10:49 AM ET
Obama on the economy.

A new square deal?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- President Obama traveled to the heart of Republican Kansas on Tuesday, where he presented Americans with a choice: a "fair shot" with him, or a return to "you're on your own economics."

Obama firmly embraced the rhetoric of income inequality, and laid out a plan to rebuild the middle class.

"This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class," Obama said. "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."

Problem is, his plan was pretty short on details.

The much ballyhooed speech was delivered in Osawatomie, the same town where Teddy Roosevelt made his case for "New Nationalism" -- a plan for broad social and economic reform -- more than 100 years ago.

All the pomp and circumstance is sure to invite comparisons between Roosevelt, the man who promised Americans "a square deal," and Obama.

That's no accident. Roosevelt's speech "really set the course for the 20th century," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

No pressure.

For the occasion, Obama hit on major campaign themes and evoked the language of income inequality that has become the hallmark of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

One big idea: Fairness.

Obama used the word "fair" or "fairness" a total of 15 times in advocating for an America where everyone gets an equal opportunity.

"I'm here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own," Obama said. "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."

How does that happen? Well, according to Obama, by following his policy prescriptions, and avoiding those of the opposition.

Republicans have, he said, refused to raise taxes on the rich. Republicans have blocked his nominee for head of the new consumer watchdog agency. And they have advocated for weak regulation and oversight.

Swing state economies complicate 2012 picture

"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," Obama said.

Obama said America needs to invest in education, and develop a commitment to science, research and high-tech manufacturing that will help win the "race to the top."

The president spoke broadly of the need for banks to help homeowners refinance mortgages, and give the unemployed more time to look for work without losing their homes.

And he mentioned that long-term reform of the tax code is needed, a conviction shared by many Republicans.

What the president didn't offer is a series of specific reforms that would make America more equitable.

That stands in sharp contrast to Roosevelt.

"When I say that I am for the square deal," Roosevelt said in 1910. "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."

For Roosevelt, those reforms took the form of an eight hour work day, a minimum wage for women, a wider social safety-net and a progressive tax system.

Meanwhile Obama, who has been constrained by a recalcitrant Congress, was reduced to advocating for one specific policy proposal -- an extension of the payroll tax holiday -- that would merely extend current policy. To top of page

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