Washington Post:

Invoking the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kan., this week to underscore two related problems plaguing America: growing income inequality and mounting strains on many of the poor and middle class.

Although it prompted the inevitable accusations about class warfare, Obama's focus on income inequality is justified. A new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) makes clear that the gap between rich and poor is growing throughout the industrialized world.

Republicans who deny the phenomenon or its ill effects would do well to recall the admonition of Mr. Obama's predecessor.

"The fact is that income inequality is real," George W. Bush said in 2007. "...And the question is whether we respond to the income inequality we see with policies that help lift people up or tear others down. The key to rising in this economy is skills, and the government's job is to make sure we have an education system that delivers them."

That is closer in spirit to Mr. Obama's message in Kansas than to the anti-government rhetoric of this year's Republican candidates.

One weakness in Obama's speech: His policy prescriptions, at least so far, don't match the gravity of the problem he describes.

To the extent he finds villains in American corporate greed or weak regulation, he misses the OECD's point that the phenomenon, fueled in large measure by globalization and new technology, transcends borders and political systems.

Of most concern is what the president played down. He made glancing reference to the need to "get our fiscal house in order" and immediately pivoted to the imperative of extending the payroll tax holiday.

The economic growth that will be essential cannot happen with the dampening overhang of ever-mounting debt. Nor can the spending Mr. Obama rightly prescribes for education, research and infrastructure.

The president is right that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are unwise and unaffordable, but ending them won't be enough. To quote the president, "That is not politics. That's just math."

* * *

Mike Littwin, Denver Post:

The Occupy (fill in city) folks are winning. If you listened to Obama's speech the other day in Osawatomie, Kan. -- where he made his case for progressivism -- you couldn't miss the Occupy influence.

The issue is why the rich seem to be growing ever richer while, for decades now, the middle class has struggled to break even. When the 2008 bubble burst, the ugly truth was revealed.

It's just taken some time -- a long, long time -- for Obama to settle on how to make the argument. In the speech, he said the American "basic bargain" has been broken and must be repaired. It's an old bargain in which hard work and effort are rewarded.

This may, in fact, be the most critical infrastructure issue of our time. Obama called it a "make or break" moment for the middle class, which is certainly how he wants to frame the campaign.

This was the narrative liberals have been waiting for. This wasn't Obama the compromiser.

It's no easy matter fixing the economy or ensuring that anyone prospers. The problems are deep and arguably structural.

They go beyond fixing the debt or raising tax rates for the rich. The question of income inequality isn't about morality, for our purposes, but about how to make the economy work. It doesn't work unless the middle class works.

There are competing theories. And the 99 to 1 theory has hit a nerve. Republicans, meanwhile, are stuck blocking a payroll tax cut for 130 million people because they need to need to stand up against a surcharge on income over $1 million for the top 0.2 percent of earners.

No wonder Obama has an audience.

* * *

Michael Kazin, Bloomberg News:

Countless changes have rendered the United States a very different country from the one in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt bashed "economic royalists."

During the 1930s, few Americans invested in the stock market, only a minority paid income tax, and per-capita income was less than $500 a year. Some steelworkers walked to their mills barefoot, in order to conserve the one pair of work shoes they owned.

In a nation where most citizens now consider themselves to be middle-class and where even most poor people own cellphones and televisions, one can't be elected president by simply campaigning against Wall Street and the rich.

What worked to FDR's advantage was a political instinct that combined resentment against "organized money" with a deep compassion for ordinary people in trouble.

On the radio and in person, he sought to console Americans as well as to educate them about how a particular policy that increased federal power would aid the great majority and not enhance the privileges accorded to any single class or interest group.

Obama probably can't remake himself into the empathizer-in-chief. It certainly wouldn't help to echo such quaint, if poetic, language.

Nor does this president need to welcome the hatred of his enemies in order to point out that they neither represent the opinions of most Americans nor have effective solutions to what ails the society.

In his speech in Kansas, Obama tried to strike such a balance, invoking some Roooseveltian themes (FDR's as well as TR's), while also claiming support from American business elites such as Andy Grove and Warren Buffett. "This isn't about class warfare," he said. "This is about the nation's welfare."

The wealthy and well-connected can and will help themselves. What the rest of the population needs is a president who unmistakably takes the side of everybody else.

* * *

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post:

The president's speech in Osawatomie was the inaugural address Obama never gave.

Obama was remarkably direct in declaring that the core ideas of the progressivism advanced by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were right, and that the commitments of Reagan era supply-side economics are flatly wrong.

He praised TR for knowing "that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can" and for understanding that "the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest."

He also eviscerated supply-side economics, a theory promising that "if we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger."

"But here's the problem," Obama declared.

"It doesn't work. It has never worked. It didn't work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It's not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the '50s and '60s. And it didn't work when we tried it during the last decade."

For months, progressives have asked why Obama wasn't invoking the populist language of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his attacks on "economic royalists" and "the privileged princes" of "new economic dynasties."

What progressives often forget is that FDR offered these words only when his first term was almost over, in his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention.

Roosevelt did not become a full-throated economic populist until the election was upon him -- and only after he was pressed by a left and a labor movement that demanded more of him.

Facing his own re-election and pushed by an Occupy Wall Street movement that has made economic inequality a driving issue in our politics, Barack Obama discovered both of his inner Roosevelts.

 * * *

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post:

Our current economic distress is attributable to myriad causes: globalization, expensive high-tech medicine, a huge debt burden, a burst housing bubble largely driven by precisely the egalitarian impulse that Obama is promoting (government aggressively pushing "affordable housing" that turned out to be disastrously unaffordable), an aging population straining the social safety net.

Yes, growing inequality is a problem throughout the Western world. But Obama's pretense that it is the root cause of this sick economy is ridiculous.

As is his solution, that old perennial: selective abolition of the Bush tax cuts. As if all that ails us, all that keeps the economy from humming and the middle class from advancing, is a 4.6-point hike in marginal tax rates for the rich.

In Kansas, Obama lamented that millions "are now forced to take their children to food banks." You have to admire the audacity. That's the kind of damning observation the opposition brings up when you've been in office three years. Yet Obama summoned it to make the case for his re-election!

Why? Because, you see, he bears no responsibility for the current economic distress. It's the rich. And, like Horatius at the bridge, Obama stands with the American masses against the soulless plutocrats.

This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez. But with high unemployment, economic stagnation and unprecedented deficits, what else can Obama say?