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Jeb Bush: Opportunity gap is 'defining issue of our time'

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called America's opportunity gap "the defining issue of our time" Wednesday in Detroit.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in San Francisco on Jan. 23, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in San Francisco on Jan. 23, 2015.

Story updated at 1:18 p.m. ET to reflect Bush's remarks. 

DETROIT -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called America's opportunity gap "the defining issue of our time" Wednesday in Detroit, where he delivered one of his first major speeches since announcing in December that he may run for president.

Speaking at the Detroit Economic Club, Bush took aim at the slow pace of economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis. "More Americans are stuck at their income levels than ever before," Bush said.

He blamed Washington politicians for not understanding the needs of millions around the country still looking for work. Bush took aim at what he called a federal bureaucracy that creates a "spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence" on government.

"People don’t want to wait for the government to deliver prosperity," Bush said, "they want to earn it themselves." 

"The recovery has been everywhere but in the family paychecks. The American Dream has become a mirage for far too many," Bush said in the prepared remarks.

Washington, he added, is ''a company town. And the company is government. It’s all they know. For several years now, they have been recklessly degrading the value of work, the incentive to work, and the rewards of work."

The American dream, Bush added, "has become a mirage for far too many." Bush said his speech Wednesday is the fist in a series of addresses the former governor will make to lay out his solutions to close the opportunity gap. 

Bush’s proto-campaign has been most active behind the scenes up to this point, corralling staffers and donors to its side before other candidates-in-waiting can scoop them up. The former Florida governor got a big boost last week when Mitt Romney decided to abandon his own presidential ambitions. In addition to freeing up staff, fundraisers and surrogates for Bush to court, Romney’s exit dampened tea party hopes that the two establishment heavyweights would get bogged down in an expensive primary fight that might allow a conservative insurgent to sneak through. 

RELATED: How Jeb Bush put pressure on Mitt Romney

With Romney out, the GOP race is wide open, with no likely candidate demonstrating a significant lead either nationally or in early primary states. Bush’s connections and popularity in elite party circles may make him the relative frontrunner for now, but on Wednesday he begins the tough task of convincing Republican rank-and-file voters he’s up to the job after several years out of politics. Bush's Right to Rise PAC is billing the speech as the first in a series of addresses devoted to "restoring the Right to Rise in America."

Bush's next chief rival for establishment support, Chris Christie, has set up a PAC to help him fundraise for a possible run and received a polite reception at Republican Rep. Steve King's Freedom Summit in Iowa last month. But Christie has struggled through a tough week after raising concerns about vaccine mandates during a trip to England. 

When asked about the issue Wednesday, Bush said firmly, "Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated," adding, "parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are protected. Over and out."

Already, other candidates are generating sparks of interest, however. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker garnered rave reviews for his speech at the King event last month and is setting himself up as a solid conservative bridge between the tea party, the religious right, and party moderates.

Bush weighed in on the already crowded 2016 GOP field. He sounded a rosy note on the impending primary. "Tearing people down is not gonna work," Bush said, adding he hopes he has the "discipline to turn away from the food fights. This is both parties, not just Republicans."

While Bush governed from the right as Florida governor, he has indicated he wants to run nationally as a pragmatist who would be more willing to challenge his base on difficult issues than past candidates. Discussing immigration at the National Automobile Dealers Association in California last week, Bush said that “[w]e need to find a path to legalized status for those who have come here and have languished in the shadows,” a position that puts him at odds with conservative activists who have pushed the party towards an enforcement-first approach. Already one early poll of Iowa’s socially conservative GOP shows Bush’s support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards could be major hurdles.