December 6, 2011 / 7:36 PM / 9 years ago

Obama hits Republicans in starkly populist speech

* Obama strikes populist tone

* Seeks to channel Theodore Roosevelt

* Republicans say speech is bid to distract

By Jeff Mason

OSAWATOMIE, Kansas, Dec 6 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama turned up the heat on his Republican foes 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.

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 pressed his case for economic policies he insists will benefit ordinary Americans struggling through hard times.

He seized the opportunity to step up pressure on congressional Republicans to extend an expiring payroll tax cut that independent economists say is needed to keep the fragile economic recovery from unraveling.

But Obama’s broader message was a call for people to get a “fair shot” and a “fair share” as he pushed for wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes and for Wall Street and Big Business to play by the rules.

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” Obama said in Osawatomie in eastern 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.”

With the 2012 presidential election just 11 months away, Obama’s trip was part of a strategy by the president and his fellow Democrats to cast the Republicans as the party beholden to the rich.

Many Republican lawmakers are skeptical that extending the tax cut beyond this year will spur job creation.

But Republican leaders, fearing a possible backlash from voters in the 2012 ballot, have expressed a willingness to find a way to prevent the tax cuts from lapsing. But they remain at odds with Obama and his Democrats on how to fund it.

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

Though polls show most Americans support Obama’s effort to increase taxes on the wealthy, his public approval ratings remain in the low to mid-40 percent range.

Republicans charged that Obama’s latest speech, as well as a series of campaign-style trips to push his stalled $447 billion jobs plan, was intended to distract from the struggling economy and persistently high unemployment, considered damaging for his re-election chances.

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