Having failed to transcend ugly partisan politics in the here and now, President Obama has resorted instead to trying on different personas of presidents past in an attempt to rise above his Republican rivals.
During an address to Congress this summer, he quoted GOP icon Ronald Reagan to show that his plan to tax the wealthy to reduce the deficit was one that Republican heroes had once embraced.
On Labor Day, Obama appeared in Detroit and invoked Harry Truman’s visit on the same holiday decades earlier to launch a more pugilistic tone against his Republican opponents
On Tuesday, Obama will speak in Osawatomie, Kan., the same Midwestern town where, 101 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt gave a famous address trumpeting a new progressive agenda.
By arguing that every American deserves “a fair shot and a fair shake,” White House aides said, Obama will echo Roosevelt’s speech laying out his New Nationalism philosophy.
Roosevelt was calling for a government that ensures that the welfare of ordinary residents trumps that of businesses and special interests. It’s an argument that builds on Obama’s jobs tour, in which he has attempted to cast himself as a champion of the middle class and accused Republicans of working only to protect the interests of the wealthy.
Last week, in an appearance in Scranton, Pa., Obama went so far as to question the GOP’s core values. (Republicans have countered that it is the Obama administration’s failed economic policies, such as the massive federal stimulus package in 2009, that have stymied a robust economic recovery.)
Obama’s address in Osawatomie aims to “put into broader perspective the kind of debates we’ve been having to build an economic future in this country,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
“It’s abundantly clear, and was clear even prior to this most recent economic crisis,” Carney added, “that the middle class in this country has been squeezed for a long time, and most especially in the last decade. . . prior to this president coming into office.”
Roosevelt gave his New Nationalism speech after finishing two terms in office. Frustrated with the stout conservatism of his hand-picked replacement, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt sought to press a more progressive agenda that would regulate corporations and the railroad industry, extend food and drug protections and provide federal assistance to the poor and middle-class, said Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of American History at American University.
“It was a crystallizing speech that did what Obama wants to do, which is throw down the gauntlet,” Lichtman said. Having identified with Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration and now with Roosevelt, Lichtman added, Obama is “trying to show how far the Republican Party has strayed, trying to draw a contrast between a narrow, cramped, corporate Republican party and the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt that sought liberty and represented ordinary people.”
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in an appearance on Meet the Press two weeks ago, suggested that the president channel Roosevelt. But senior administration officials said Monday that Goodwin did not influence Obama’s decision to appear in Osawatomie.
The officials cited still other Republican presidents who took actions that current Republicans might balk at — Richard Nixon starting the Environmental Protection Agency, Dwight Eisenhower expanding the federal highway system — to highlight the stakes facing the country.
Roosevelt “was criticized by members of his party,” said one administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to lay out White House strategy. “That’s why he ultimately left his party and gave the speech. . .We’re at a crossroads here.”