President Barack Obama traveled to his late mother’s home state of Kansas on Tuesday to deliver a speech in which the 44th president channeled the 26th: Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
Obama began his remarks by noting his Kansas roots: “It is great to be back in the state of Kansas,” the president said. “As many of you know, I’ve got roots here. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie. 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.”
As the Washington Post noted, it was in the town of Osawatomie that Theodore Roosevelt launched his “New Nationalism” progressive agenda on Aug. 31, 1910. It was also the town where John Brown launched his famous, bloody raids in opposition to slavery.
Obama’s speech was focused on the economy and jobs, and also in the issue of income inequality, which has captured increased national attention in recent months, amid the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“Today, we are still home to the world’s most productive workers and innovative companies,” Obama said. “But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before. But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”
The president is pushing for passage of his American Jobs Act, which has been rejected in whole, and in several of its parts, by the Republican-Controlled House and by Republican filibusters in the Senate. The president is traveling around the country pushing for increased infrastructure spending — rebuilding roads, bridges and schools — and for an extension of the payroll tax cut passed in December 2010, financed by increased taxes on the wealthy.
Republicans oppose the tax hike on the top 1 percent, and have proposed “paying for” the middle class tax break with spending cuts.
In making the case for his programs, Obama drew on Roosevelt, who famously broke from the Republican Party to form an independent, “Bull Moose” party in 1911. An excerpt from the speech:
Well, I’m here to say they are wrong. I’m here to reaffirm my deep conviction that we are greater together than we are on our own. 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. Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.
You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because some people thought massive inequality and exploitation was just the price of progress.
Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today: that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
But 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. 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.
Read the full speech here.