Obama to echo Theodore Roosevelt in a big thematic speech on Tuesday

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Harry Truman had the Fair Deal. John Kennedy had the New Frontier. Now President Barack Obama takes his stab at wrapping his presidency under one great mantle.

Looking to inject his economic agenda with the grand sweep of history, he'll travel Tuesday to the small town of Osawatomie, Kan., the same place where Theodore Roosevelt a century ago summoned the nation to a new progressive era under what he called a "New Nationalism."

The choice of the site is no accident. After planning the speech for more than a month, Obama will say the times of sweeping change that animated Roosevelt at the start of the 20th century — including a growing gap between the rich and poor, with a middle class squeezed and falling behind — are much the same at the start of the 21st.

And while he'll echo his push for short-term answers, such as extending middle-class tax cuts and raising taxes on the wealthy, both now stalled in Congress, he'll strive to frame the entire debate heading into the 2012 elections and the decade to come.

In a preview late Monday, senior administration officials used phrases such as "fair shot" and "fair shake" to describe what's needed for the middle class — and "fair share" for what's required of the wealthy.

"We're in this moment coming out of severe crisis, where inequality's been rising, the middle class is getting squeezed, there's a sense the rules don't apply ... people at the top aren't paying their fair share," said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

"The president is going to say very clearly his sense of what's required ... where everyone gets a fair shot and a fair shake. That's going to animate not just the political debate next year, but the debate going forward," the official said.

Obama has talked about elements of this message several times, including in his 2008 campaign. But the White House fears that many of his economic initiatives have appeared piecemeal and reactive to the recession, rather than to the deep changes already underway in a country awash with unsettling change brought on by the decline of manufacturing jobs, rapid immigration, the global economy and new technology.

"It's important that they not be seen as rifle shots," the official said of his boss's proposals.

Obama's top advisers have read the Roosevelt speech word for word, and they were struck by how much of it could be delivered verbatim today.

"There's a tremendous amount of parallel between that moment and this," said a second senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Roosevelt was on a cross-country tour when he stopped in Osawatomie, southwest of Kansas City. In his address to an audience of 30,000, he talked about the need for the government to help those at the bottom, and the responsibility of the wealthy to help society.

"We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used," Roosevelt said, arguing that wealth is only good if used to serve others and that government had a say in that.

"It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community," he said. "We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary."

Several passages echo through the decades into today's Republican presidential primaries. Roosevelt urged strong regulation of corporations, for example, saying they have no right to vote. Republican Mitt Romney said this year that "corporations are people."

Roosevelt called for national laws to regulate child labor. Republican Newt Gingrich calls child labor laws "truly stupid."

And Roosevelt urged a tax on estates, "increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate." Republicans want the estate tax repealed.

Ultimately, Roosevelt's agenda was not universally popular, even if the country was moving into what came to be called the Progressive Era.

In a 1966 article, the Kansas Historical Quarterlies described the Roosevelt speech on Aug. 31, 1910, as the most important ever delivered in Kansas, and said reactions to it varied greatly.

"Surrounded by 30,000 enthusiastic listeners at Osawatomie, he developed a political creed which became a milestone along the road to the modern all-powerful state," the article said.

"This speech, later called the 'New Nationalism Address,' evoked a wide variety of responses. It was labeled 'Communistic,' 'Socialistic,' and `'Anarchistic' in various quarters; while others hailed it 'the greatest oration ever given on American soil.'"

Having already served as president from 1901-1909, Roosevelt went on to launch a third party bid to take back the White House two years after the speech. He lost.

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