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Down in the Polls, Obama Seeks to Ride Occupy Movement’s “Populist Wave”

Daily Ticker

President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kan. attacked Republicans, assailed Wall Street and defended the middle class while evoking President Teddy Roosevelt.

In his 55-minute speech at Osawatomie high school, Obama underscored the growing inequality in this country and vowed to fight against it.

"This is the defining issue of our time," he said to the packed high school gymnasium. "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class."

Tuesday's speech was "Obama's re-election campaign message," says David Chalian, Washington Bureau Chief for Yahoo! News. Obama is attempting to shift the national discussion to income inequality from the Republican edict of spending cuts and deficit reform, he says.

Obama and Democrats have realized the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement has resonated across the country and transcends party lines. The protestors may no longer be "occupying" public property, but the common goal — to draw attention to the discernible differences between the rich and the "99%" - has "helped alter the debate in Washington," says Chalian.

"Occupy Wall Street has showed more political potency than anyone initially gave them credit for" and Obama "is going to try and ride the populist wave," he says.

In choosing to give his speech in Osawatomie, population of 4,500, Obama explicitly referenced President Teddy Roosevelt, who delivered his famous "New Nationalism" platform in the very same town in 1910. Chided at the time for his progressive vision and derided by opponents as a socialist and communist, Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" platform helped create labor standards Americans cherish today: an 8-hour work day, minimum wages for women and federal benefits for the elderly and unemployed.

Obama drew parallels between the challenges facing the country today and during Roosevelt's era, and how the American ideals Roosevelt fought for are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.

"This isn't about class warfare," Obama said. "This is about the nation's welfare. It's about making choices that benefit not just the people who've done fantastically over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class and those fighting to get into the middle class."

In the accompanying video, Chalian tells Aaron that Obama's remarks "brought a whole new level" to his re-election message. But political pundits and historians will have to wait until next November to see if Obama can successfully convince Americans that his approach is right.

With his approval ratings near record lows, Chalian says Obama's populist rhetoric may very well be his best chance to reconnect with the American people -- and voters -- next November.

"There is a broader American hunger for some sense of equality," he says.