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By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said on Thursday his philosophy of democratic socialism was aimed at creating a more fair economy that was not tilted to benefit the rich, portraying it as a logical heir to popular government programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

In a long-promised speech meant to ease the concerns of some voters about the “socialist” label, Sanders cited former President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era policies to put Americans back to work and provide a broad social safety net as the model for his democratic socialist agenda.

“Our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, said in a speech at Georgetown University. “We need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.”

Sanders said Roosevelt’s programs to create jobs and lift Americans out of poverty during the Great Depression, including the Social Security retirement program, the concept of a minimum wage, the 40-hour work week and strong banking regulations, were all called “socialist” at the time.

“Yet these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class,” he said.

Sanders, who has long described himself as a democratic socialist, trails Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in polls but has galvanized the party’s liberal wing with his calls for greater income equality, free college tuition and a break-up of the big banks.

But he has acknowledged the socialist tag makes some voters nervous with its Cold War-era images of government-controlled economies, and that he needed to ease those worries in order to expand his support and convince Democrats he can be a viable nominee in the November 2016 presidential election.

Sanders cited Roosevelt’s 1944 call for a second Bill of Rights that would guarantee economic security for all Americans. He said his version of democratic socialism would end tax breaks for corporations, put millions of Americans back to work rebuilding the infrastructure, raise the minimum wage to $15 and create a single-payer, Medicare-style healthcare plan for all.

“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal,” he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers a speech on “Democratic Socialism in America,” to students at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall in Washington November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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