Obama invokes Teddy Roosevelt in Kansas; argues for economic ‘fairness’

President Obama channeled Theodore Roosevelt on Tuesday by traveling to the same small town in Kansas visited by the 26th president to deliver a speech on economic fairness.

Obama quoted Roosevelt several times in the speech, which set up the economic debate over taxes as “the defining issue of our time.”

Obama is battling Republicans over whether to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, which Obama would pay for by raising taxes on the wealthy. He argued Roosevelt was confronted with a similar situation at the turn of the last century.

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“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 in Osawatomie, Kans. “I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own.”

Roosevelt visited Osawatomie in 1910 after his presidency, and “laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism,” Obama said. “ 'We are all Americans,' ” Teddy Roosevelt told them that day. 'Our common interests are as broad as the continent.' ”

Obama only mentioned the payroll tax briefly on Tuesday, but sought to use his speech as a rallying cry for his battle against Republicans in Congress.


“Just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune,” Obama said. “Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say: They are wrong.”

The White House underlined the comparison to Roosevelt in advance of Obama’s speech.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Roosevelt’s speech “set the course for the 20th century in terms of ensuring that the free market system operated under rules of the road that gave everyone a fair share and a fair shot and ensured that everyone also paid their fair share.”

Obama’s trip on Tuesday took him to a solidly Republican state that supported GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. Yet Obama has roots in Kansas, which he talked up in his address. He also brought Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the event, the state’s former Democratic governor.

GOP Gov. Sam Brownback did not attend the speech due to a scheduling conflict.

Obama compared his arguments not only to the first President Roosevelt, but also to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican from Kansas. “[T]here has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness,” he said. “Throughout the country, it has sparked protests and political movements — from the Tea Party to the people who have been ‘Occupy’ing the streets of New York and other cities. It’s left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. And it’s been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women who are running for president.”

He urged “making education a national mission,” “a world-class commitment to science, research, and the next generation of high-tech manufacturing” and increased infrastructure investment.

“If we had unlimited resources, no one would ever have to pay any taxes and we’d never have to cut any spending. But we don’t have unlimited resources. And so we have to set priorities,” he said. “We have to make choices.”

“That’s not politics. That’s just math,” Obama said, a phrase he has used in the past to defend raising taxes on the wealthy. “This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare.”