In Kansas, a combative Obama tries on his Teddy Roosevelt hat

In the Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt called for a progressive 'New Nationalism,' Obama delivered a populist appeal fairness through taxes and regulation and an indictment of the GOP agenda as he sees it.

Charlie Riedel/AP
President Obama speaks about the economy Tuesday at Osawatomie High School in Osawatomie, Kansas.

When George W. Bush was president, he eschewed discussion of his place in history. President Obama seems to welcome it.

Whether it’s his first presidential campaign launch in Springfield, Ill., Abraham Lincoln’s home town, or praise for Ronald Reagan’s ability to change the nation’s trajectory, Mr. Obama regularly dips into the presidential record books for current meaning.

Tuesday it was the turn of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president and a Republican. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where President Roosevelt delivered a call for a progressive “New Nationalism” 101 years ago, Obama played off similar populist themes of equal opportunity and fairness through taxes and regulation.

“I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own,” Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at Osawatomie High School. “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules.”

In his time, Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist for his policy proposals, Obama noted. “But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.”

Obama repeated his call for an extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the month. Congress has been stymied over how to pay for a continuation of that tax holiday, which, if it expires, would cost 160 million Americans an average of $1,000 in higher taxes, Obama said. Also at issue is an extension of federal unemployment benefits and the “doc fix,” which prevents doctors who accept Medicare from taking a pay cut.

Obama’s trip to conservative Kansas represented a departure from the president’s usual travel to battleground states, as the 2012 campaign heats up. But not only did the visit allow him to bask in the historical image of Teddy Roosevelt – often cited by leaders of both parties as one of their favorite presidents – but also to offer a reminder of his own Kansas roots.

“I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie,” the president joked. “Actually, I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent – and my values – from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. And her father was from El Dorado. So my Kansas roots run deep.”

Still, it remained clear that the 55-minute speech contained political themes that are sure to appear repeatedly in the presidential race. Obama laid out a harsh indictment of the Republican agenda as he sees it.

“Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. 'The market will take care of everything,' they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger.

“Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.”

But there’s a problem with that theory, Obama said. “It doesn’t work.”

Republicans were quick to respond to Obama’s speech.

“The president talks about fairness. Yet one of the results of his administration has been to widen the inequity between the middle class and the political class,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, in a statement.

“The middle class must pay for the president’s failed policies twice – first, they have to pay the bill for profligate federal spending, and then they must pay the price for its economic consequences in the form of lost jobs and mounting debt.”

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