obama20kansas

On Tuesday President Obama delivered an economic speech on what he called a "make-or-break moment" for the middle class and poor.

"This is the defining issue of our time," the president said from a Kansas high school on the questions of how to restore the nation's economy, rebuild the shrinking middle class and narrow the widening wealth gap. "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."

First recalling Roosevelt Franklin's 1901 speech that detailed a vision for a "New Nationalism," in which the federal government would regulate the burgeoning industrial economy while also ensuring fairness and social justice for workers (a speech delivered in Osawatomie, Kan., the same locale for Obama's address), the president made his case for economic policies that he believes will benefit ordinary Americans in today's economic transformation.

With that, he emphatically argued that the "you're-on-your-own economics" favored by many conservatives, and the trickle down theory, do not work.

"Look at the statistics," he said. "The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade, the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent. This kind of inequality -- a level we haven't seen since the Great Depression -- hurts us all.

"It's heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That's inexcusable. It's wrong."

To restore middle-class security, Obama re-emphasized policies that he has long touted: investing in education and innovation, a tax code in which "everybody pays their fair share," and the full implementation of 2010's Wall Street reform law. 

Specifically, he called on Congress to extend his soon-to-expire payroll-tax cut, which has resulted in an extra $1,000 a year for the typical working family. The president condemned Republicans not only for threatening to hike those taxes back up on working Americans but also for balking at raising taxes on millionaires (or simply ending their tax breaks).

"Today the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century," he said. "And I know that many of our wealthiest citizens would agree to contribute a little more if it meant reducing the deficit and strengthening the economy that made their success possible. This isn't about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare."

He also urged Senate Republicans against blocking the confirmation of Richard Cordray as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created under financial regulatory reform. "Every day we go without a consumer watchdog in place is another day when a student or a senior citizen or member of our Armed Forces could be tricked into a loan they can't afford -- something that happens all the time," he said. "Financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them."

Obama ended his remarks by repeating his desire to constrain corporate excesses and level the playing field. "It will require American business leaders to understand that their obligations don't just end with their shareholders," he said, explaining that those obligations can take forms as varied as bringing business back to the United States, paying decent wages and hiring workers.

"That's how America was built. That's what our greatest companies understand," he said. "Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It's been about building a nation where we're all better off. We pull together, we pitch in and we do our part, believing that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.