Obama Frames His Re-Election Campaign In Kan.

President Obama's speech in Osawatomie, Kan., on Tuesday laid out his vision of an active government that supports middle-class Americans.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: And I'm Linda Wertheimer. It was a presidential speech intended to set the stage for next year's White House contest. Yesterday in Kansas, President Obama sought to present himself as the progressive heir to Teddy Roosevelt, the champion of a square deal for the middle class.

INSKEEP: President Obama outlined two starkly different visions of the U.S. economy and the government's role in it. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Speaking at a small-town high school in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama talked about the values he learned from his Kansas-born mother and his grandparents; values shaped in the middle of the country, in the middle of the last century when prosperity was more widely shared and government programs, like the GI Bill, gave millions a chance to get ahead.

Sadly, Mr. Obama said, for far too many Americans, it doesn't feel like we're in that Kansas anymore.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.

HORSLEY: Not only is wealth more concentrated in the hands of a few, but Mr. Obama complained that a child born in poverty today has less chance of making it into the middle class than a poor child born in the 1950s. He accused Republicans of suffering from collective amnesia, with their call for more tax cuts for the wealthy and less government regulation.

OBAMA: And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say: They are wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama offered his own, alternative vision, in which the government plays an active role: promoting education, policing the financial sector, and funding needed investments with higher taxes on the wealthy.

OBAMA: In America, we are greater together when everyone engages in fair play, and everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share.

HORSLEY: Not so long ago, Mr. Obama says, these ideas were embraced by leaders across the political spectrum, including Republican Teddy Roosevelt. He gave his own speech in Osawatomie more than a century ago, and outlined a vision similar to the one Mr. Obama spelled out yesterday.

OBAMA: This isn't about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama spoke for nearly an hour, and pulled together many of the ideas he's been talking about since well before the last election. But it's one thing to bemoan the plight of the middle class as a candidate, and something else when you've been in the White House for almost three years. With unemployment at 8.6 percent, many people feel just as insecure today, if not more so, than when Mr. Obama took office.

Republican rival Mitt Romney told Fox News the president's policies are making things worse.

MITT ROMNEY: We have a president three years in to his first term who has not laid out an economic plan to put Americans to work, and to rekindle our economy and to make us globally competitive. I find it extraordinary that this president has no vision for our economy.

HORSLEY: Yesterday's speech was meant to highlight the differences in vision that will help frame next year's election. But the president also has his eye on more immediate battles - like whether to extend the payroll tax cut, and a fight in the Senate this week over his nominee to head a new financial watchdog agency. Republicans have been threatening to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray. The White House says without a confirmed director, the watchdog will have fewer teeth.

OBAMA: Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Shouting) No!

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) No!

OBAMA: Of course not.

HORSLEY: Even with a full-court press by the White House, it seems unlikely Cordray will win Senate confirmation this week. But at what he calls a make-or- break moment for the middle class, Mr. Obama wants everyone on record saying which side they're on.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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