The president chose this town of 4,600 in eastern Kansas as a historical echo of a speech delivered a century earlier by Theodore Roosevelt, who used the same location to call for a strong central government that would protect ordinary Americans from what he called the greed and recklessness of big business and special interests. That speech, which became known as “the New Nationalism” speech, was one of the early cornerstones of 20th-century progressivism.
Obama, in a 55-minute address, moved beyond the specifics of his recent jobs proposals to issue a searing indictment of Republican economic theory, framing the debate as one of right and wrong, fairness and unfairness.
“This is the defining issue of our time,” Obama said before a crowd of 1,200 in the Osawatomie High School gymnasium. “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.”
The speech comes at a moment when a new populist strain seems to be bubbling through the national political debate at many levels of government, from city halls to statehouses to Washington.
That debate, not so long ago dominated by concern about reducing the national debt and shrinking the size of government, seems to be shifting as the presidential campaign kicks into gear.
In one example of the shift, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, reached an agreement with the legislature Tuesday to overhaul the state’s tax code, creating a higher tax bracket for wealthy earners while cutting taxes for the middle class. The top bracket, with a tax rate of 8.82 percent, will affect households earning more than $2 million, through 2014. Democratic legislators said the aim was to restore fairness to the state tax code, echoing recent Obama rhetoric.
Also Tuesday, radio host Glenn Beck chastised GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich about his 2003 declaration that he considers himself a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican.” Gingrich defended the label on Beck’s show and said he believes there are “minimum regulatory standards of public health and safety that are, I think, really important.” He quickly distanced himself from the later Theodore Roosevelt, who Gingrich said had become, by 1912, a “big-government, centralized-power advocate running as a third-party candidate.”
For Obama, Tuesday marked another milestone in his recent political evolution after the disastrous debt-ceiling negotiations with Republicans in the summer.