OSAWATOMIE, Kan. | President Barack Obama channeled Theodore Roosevelt on Tuesday, calling for a more level playing field in America and an end to what he called “you’re-on-your-own economics.”
Speaking in the same town where Roosevelt delivered his “New Nationalism” address in 1910, Obama pitched his own version of Roosevelt’s “square deal,” where “everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules.”
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His plan includes extending an income-tax break now dividing Congress, raising taxes on the rich, boosting education funding and demanding more of banks.
“This isn’t just another political debate,” Obama said. “This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.
“At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement.”
Obama’s visit to this town of about 4,000 was the biggest moment in Osawatomie’s history since Roosevelt’s visit 101 years ago, many residents said. Although they said Osawatomie remains rock-solid Republican in bright-red Kansas, the crowd packed into the high school gym greeted Obama warmly and cheered him throughout his 54-minute address.
“A lot of people feel like the American dream is slipping away, that it’s a thing of the past,” said Kevin Lynch of Paola, Kan., who sat in the crowd.
The excitement Osawatomie residents felt for hosting the president survived even the two-hour outdoor waiting time that ticketholders were forced to endure before the speech.
Osawatomie High School was decked out for the occasion. Even the old trophies outside the gym were polished and dusted. Students were given the option of not attending Tuesday, and one, Kory Ohomeier, estimated that 40 percent showed up.
“It put the whole school on hold,” she said of Obama’s visit.
No protesters were seen near the school, but security was tight. “It was very scary,” said sophomore Alaina Johnson.
The speech laid down a political marker for Obama. The president made it clear that as he heads into an election year, he is staking his claim to a second term to his backing of ordinary Americans struggling to make it in a still-soft economy.
That middle class, he said, continues to shrink.
“A few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle-class as an adult,” Obama said. “By 1980, that chance fell to around 40 percent. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1-in-3 chance of making it to the middle class.”
Meanwhile, the rich continue to get richer, thanks to a generous tax code, Obama said.
“Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households,” Obama said. “Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent. This is the height of unfairness.
“It is wrong for Warren Buffett’s secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. And he agrees with me.”
Obama touched on a pair of hot-button contemporary political issues, calling for an extension of a temporary payroll tax cut first passed a year ago and for confirmation of Richard Cordray as the nation’s new Wall Street regulator.
“If we don’t do that,” Obama said of the tax cut, “160 million Americans will see their taxes go up by an average of $1,000, and it would badly weaken our recovery.”
Of Cordray, he said: “Does anyone here think the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors? Of course not.”
Republicans oppose the tax extension because Democrats would pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy. Cordray is meeting resistance because of concerns over the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that he would head.
The GOP insisted that Obama’s plans are the wrong way to go. Amanda Atkins, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said the president’s prescription amounts to increasing taxes, the national debt and the size of the federal government.
“It won’t work,” Atkins said. “The nation and its taxpayers cannot afford it.”
Among those attending Tuesday’s speech were Kansas City Mayor Sly James, Wyandotte County CEO Joe Reardon and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor.
Just as Roosevelt had a century earlier, Obama talked about a collective responsibility Americans have to each other. The country, he said, is more than just a group of profit-seeking individuals.
“We still have a stake in each other’s success,” he said. “We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule in our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’ ”
Obama defended free markets, just as Roosevelt had when he spoke in the town park to a crowd estimated at 30,000. And like Roosevelt, he pointed toward excesses working against America’s best interests.
“Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, open and honest,” Obama said. “And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for customers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children, or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe. And today, they still can’t.”
Obama insisted that his call for fairness did not amount to pitting the middle and lower classes against the wealthy.
“This is about the nation’s welfare,” the president said. “It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get to the middle class, and the economy as a whole.”