Obama Attempts To Invoke Roosevelt's Famous Speech

President Obama was in Osawatomie, Kan., where he delivered an economic speech about the middle class. Osawatomie is the same city where, a century earlier, former President Teddy Roosevelt called for a "New Nationalism," in which he talked about the role of government. For more, Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Scott Horsley.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Just over a century ago, in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas. He was already a former president, but he gave a famous speech there, his New Nationalism Address. Roosevelt spoke of fair play, giving Americans a square deal, equality of opportunity ensured by government. Well, today, President Obama went to Osawatomie, and he spoke of similar themes.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we're 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 when everyone plays by the same rules.

SIEGEL: For more on President Obama's speech, we're joined now by NPR's Scott Horsley, who's traveling with the president. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And how would you describe the point of President Obama's speech today?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, this was really a speech that was not about the individual trees of his economic policy, but the forest. The president is sometimes criticized for not connecting his economic proposals. And every once in a while, he steps back and tries to provide a sort of big frame for the picture. This was his chance to sketch out the themes that guide his economic policy and which are likely to be important in next year's re-election contest.

SIEGEL: And what are those themes that he's stressing?

HORSLEY: Well, the overarching theme is that we are all, as Americans, in this together. That this should not be an economy that's about survival of the fittest where everyone's on his or her own but that we have a responsibility to lift up one another and that the economy does best when prosperity is broadly shared. And unfortunately, the president said that's not the situation. That's not the distribution of wealth that we're seeing right now.

OBAMA: This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America, that this is a place where you can make it if you try.

HORSLEY: And he's promising to build an economy that does work more for broad prosperity by investing in things like education, by promoting a tax code in which the wealthiest pay a higher percentage of their income, and for laws that make sure that the financial sector is policed more thoroughly.

SIEGEL: And the Democratic president reached back to Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican - albeit a maverick Republican - to justify this approach.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. Teddy Roosevelt's speech, in many ways, it touched on some of the same themes that we're looking at today. He talked about policing the financial system after the panic of 1907. Teddy Roosevelt talked about a graduated income tax on high earners.

And Roosevelt acknowledged in his speech that he was likely to be accused of being a communist for some of the things he said. And he defended his stance by saying, Look, I'm just trying to carry out the vision that Abraham Lincoln touched on. So in the same way, President Obama, who has also drawn charges from the right, is trying to say, look, the ideas that I am espousing are ideas that have long guided even Republican leaders, including Teddy Roosevelt.

SIEGEL: And, Scott, how do you think this might shape the 2012 election campaign?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House believes that the public is on their side when it comes to this broad philosophy, even if some of the administration's specific moves have faced stiff opposition in Congress. The showdown that we're seeing right now is over whether to extend the payroll tax cut for working Americans, and some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers are still on the fence. But we see now where presidential contenders from the GOP, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have embraced that. They want to see a deal, and the White House sees that as an endorsement of their proposals.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley, speaking to us from Osawatomie, Kansas, where President Obama spoke today.

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