While never making an overt plea for a second term, Obama's offered his most comprehensive lines of attack against the candidates seeking to take his job, only a month before Republican voters begin choosing a presidential nominee. He also sought to inject some of the long-overshadowed hope that energized his 2008 campaign, saying: "I believe America is on its way up."
In small-town Osawatomie, in a high school gym where patriotic bunting lined the bleachers, Obama presented himself as the one fighting for shared sacrifice and success against those who would gut government and let people fend for themselves. He did so knowing the nation is riven over the question of whether economic opportunity for all is evaporating.
"Throughout the country, it's sparked protests and political movements, from the tea party to the people who've been occupying the streets of New York and other cities," Obama said.
"This is the defining issue of our time," he said in echoing President Theodore Roosevelt's famous speech here in 1910.
"This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class," Obama said. "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."
For Obama, saddled with a weak national economic recovery, the speech was a chance to break away from Washington's incremental battles and his own small-scale executive actions. He offered a sweeping indictment of economic inequality and unleashed his own brand of prairie populism.
He spoke for nearly an hour to a supportive audience, reselling his ideas under the framework of "building a nation where we're all better off."
Billed as an important address that would put today's economic debates in context, Obama's speech seemed a bit like two packaged into one.
The first was that of the campaigner, full of loft and reclamation of American values. The second was the governing Obama, who recited his familiar jobs agenda, his feud with Congress over extending a Social Security tax cut, even his fight to get his consumer watchdog confirmed.
Obama tied himself to Roosevelt, the president and reformer who came to this town in eastern Kansas and called for a "square deal" for regular Americans. Roosevelt said then the fight for progress was a conflict "between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess."
It is a theme Obama is embracing in a mounting fight for re-election against Republicans who, regardless of the nominee, will attack his stewardship of the economy.
One of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, ridiculed Obama for comparing himself to Roosevelt.
Obama "said that he is like Teddy Roosevelt," Romney said at a campaign event in Paradise Valley, Ariz. "And I thought, `In what way is he like Teddy Roosevelt?' Teddy Roosevelt of course founded the Bull Moose Party. One of those words applies."
Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said, "Maybe instead of trying to be like other presidents, Obama should try being president."
Obama took aim at the Republicans, saying they would only return the same structures that led to America's economic downturn. "Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules," Obama said. "I'm here to say they are wrong."
The president conceded that the country is in the midst of a consuming re-examination on his watch, prompting national movements against both government spending and an economy that many feel disproportionately favors the elite. Obama went on the offensive about income equality, saying it distorts democracy and derails the American dream.
Responding to those who want to cut taxes and regulation in the belief success will trickle down, Obama said: "Here's the problem: It doesn't work. It's never worked."
Obama noted that Theodore Roosevelt was called a "radical, a socialist, even a communist" for putting forth ideas in his last campaign such as an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage for women, unemployment insurance and a progressive income tax.
Left unsaid: Roosevelt's Bull Moose campaign in 1912 failed to return him to the White House.
Obama attempted to sum up the pain and peril for a society where the middle class is struggling. But he also called for individual responsibility.
"In the end," he said, "rebuilding this economy based on fair play, a fair shot and a fair share will require all of us to see the stake we have in each other's success."
Obama also challenged he big banks that took bailouts from American taxpayers, pointing to "a deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street." He said banks that were bailed out had an obligation to work to close that trust deficit and should be doing more to help remedy past mortgage abuses and assist middle-class taxpayers.
Ben Feller contributed from Washington. AP writers Erica Werner and Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.