— -- President Obama cast himself as the savior of the middle class Tuesday in a policy and political battle with Republicans who, he said, want to let Americans "fend for themselves."
In a 56-minute speech rife with historical overtones, Obama said the rich are getting richer while the middle class is losing ground, leading to inordinate political power for the wealthy.
"What's 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, secure their retirement," Obama said in Osawatomie, Kan., the site of a similar address on economic inequality by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910.
While noting his mother and grandparents hailed from Kansas, the president said "this isn't just another political debate." Rather, he declared it "a make or break moment" for a middle class that is shrinking because of "gaping" income inequality.
Republicans fired back on several fronts. The Republican National Committee and American Crossroads, a conservative advocacy group, questioned many of his facts and figures. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor accused Obama of using the same themes Cantor has sounded about giving Americans a "fair shot."
"The president talks about fairness," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "Yet one of the results of his administration has been to widen the inequity between the middle class and the political class."
Blasting his Republican opponents, Obama pushed again for an extension of the payroll tax cut enacted last year and said the wealthy should pay a higher share of taxes. He accused Republicans of seeking a return to the same policies that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, slowing job growth and widening the gap between rich and poor.
"Their philosophy is simple: 'We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.' I am here to say they are wrong," the president said.
Anger about income inequality and a shrinking middle class has led to a variety of political protests, Obama said, from the Tea Party conservatives to Occupy Wall Street liberals who describe themselves as the "99%" of Americans.
"I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules," he said. "These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't 1% values or 99% values. They're American values, and we have to reclaim them."
Obama outlined his economic policies in terms of history. He said the United States has faced economic challenges before, particularly during the industrial age of the early 20th century — an era that inspired his visit to Osawatomie, the same small Kansas town where Roosevelt delivered his pivotal speech.
Roosevelt, then a Republican former president who was critical of conservative GOP successor William Howard Taft, believed in the free market, Obama noted. But he knew that "the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can," Obama said.
Several historians and speech experts hailed the speech as one of the president's most significant as he completes his third year in office.
"This is the keynote speech for the 2012 election," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. "He's attempting to take the equality issue, wrap himself in it, and wrap the 99% of Americans in it as well."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, said Obama sounded a theme of unity rather than using terms such as Roosevelt's "malefactors of great wealth."
"He hasn't handed (Republicans) the language in which to make the argument against him," she said.
If this represents the president's framing of the 2012 campaign debate, however, some historians said it's not clear which side comes out on top.
"Defending middle and working Americans has clear political advantages and is consistent with his policy views," said George Edwards, a Texas A&M presidential studies chairman and editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. "The question is whether the Republican attempts to frame his stance as 'class warfare' will trump the White House's effort to frame the president as the defender of middle America."