In speech to students, Obama frets about end of American dream 

President Obama, in a downbeat and at times pessimistic speech on the economy, acknowledged a "sense that the American dream might slowly be slipping away."

"The anxiety that's out there today isn't new," Obama said at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The speech was a notable departure for the president, who routinely delivers a more upbeat message on the economy that combines sober judgment with assurances that his policies are working and showing results.

But after weeks of criticism for his handling of the BP oil spill and with only modest progress in job creation and other economic goals, a more frustrated Obama delivered a darker address striking out at the "backward" policies of the Republicans.

He said the Republican agenda has only two dimensions: "more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations."

"This is the same crowd who took the record $237 billion surplus that President Clinton left them and turned it into a record $1.3 trillion deficit," Obama said.

The speech drew immediate comparisons to former President Carter's so-called "malaise" speech of 1979, in which he confronted a nation dispirited by the energy crisis, Watergate, the aftermath of Vietnam and a troubled economy with a sermon-like address about shared sacrifice and values.

It was regarded as a defining speech of Carter's presidency. A little more than a year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in part with an upbeat, optimistic political message that was a sharp contrast to the pessimism that Carter expressed.

The Republican National Committee, seizing on the similarities between Obama's speech and Carter's issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the former's remarks, calling it the "malaise at Mellon."

For Obama, speech-giving in the presidency has become a somewhat fraught activity. Hailed for his skills as an orator, he relies almost superstitiously on a teleprompter, and rarely speaks at length extemporaneously.

The Pittsburgh speech also marked a unmistakable embrace by the president of the harsh, partisan politics of the season.

Frustrated by Republican opposition to his agenda and the intensity of the battles he has waged so far -- on health care, especially -- Obama unleashed a torrent of blame for the issues that defy easy fixes in his presidency.

"To be fair, a good deal of the other party's opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government," Obama said. "It's a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges."

Lamenting the "recycled" ideas of Republicans that help the few and tell everyone else, "you're on your own," Obama aligned himself with the sense of loss and anxiety he said is at work in America.

"The recession has certainly made it worse, but that feeling of not being in control of your own economic future -- that sense that the American Dream might slowly be slipping away -- that's been around for some time now," Obama said.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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