* Obama lays out themes of 2012 election campaign
* Vows new legislation to punish Wall Street fraud
* Republicans say speech is bid to distract
By Jeff Mason
OSAWATOMIE, Kansas, Dec 6 U.S. 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
In a speech meant to echo a historic address given by
former President Theodore Roosevelt in the same Kansas town
more than 100 years ago, Obama railed against "gaping" economic
inequality and pressed the case for policies he insisted would
help ordinary Americans get through hard times.
He seized the opportunity to step up pressure on
congressional Republicans to extend payroll tax cuts that
independent economists say are vital to economic recovery, and
also vowed new legislation to punish Wall Street fraud.
But 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.
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.
But Republicans said it was another attempt to distract
from what they see as Obama's failed economic record. Senate
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused the president and his
fellow Democrats of resorting to "cheap political theater."
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, in an
interview on CNBC, said Obama's policies made him the "finest
food stamp president in American history" because more people
will end up getting government aid than new jobs.
SWEEPING CAMPAIGN THEMES
Obama's attempt to lay out the ideological foundations of
his re-election campaign marked a shift from recent speeches
that have concentrated on small-scale executive actions or
campaign-style harangues against Republicans to stop stalling
his $447 billion jobs plan.
This time, Obama sought to channel Roosevelt, a Republican
who provoked deep anger within his party with his landmark "New
Nationalism" speech in 1910 that hailed the government's role
in promoting social justice and warned against the abuses of
rich business interests. Roosevelt lost the 1912 presidential
election running as a third-party candidate.
Obama sharpened his tone against Wall Street, reflecting
what aides see as a message that increasingly resonates with
working-class voters whose taxes have gone to business bailouts
while their own incomes have flatlined.
He was also seeking to revitalize his liberal base amid
fears that an "enthusiasm gap" could cut into Democratic
turnout and cost him a second term.
Obama sounded themes of economic inequality and corporate
greed that have driven the Occupy Wall Street protest movement
that was spawned in New York in recent months and has spread to
other major cities and even other countries.
"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," Princeton
University political historian Julian Zelizer said.
The risk for Obama is that tougher rhetoric against Big
Business could turn off some of the centrist voters he needs to
win re-election. After his Democrats suffered major losses in
the November 2010 congressional elections, he launched an
outreach to the business community to try to mend fences.
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.
Many Republican lawmakers are skeptical that it will spur
job creation, but party leaders, fearing a possible backlash
from voters in 2012, have expressed a willingness to find a way
to prevent the tax cut from lapsing.
They remain at odds with Democrats on how to fund it.