NPR logo Obama Tries Using TR As Big Stick Against GOP Opponents

Obama Tries Using TR As Big Stick Against GOP Opponents

President Obama tapped his inner Theodore Roosevelt, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

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Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Obama tapped his inner Theodore Roosevelt, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Since virtually the start of his tenure in the Oval Office, President Obama hasn't hesitated to claim that his policies, not those of his political opponents, most continue the unfinished work of those presidents most Americans consider among the greatest — Lincoln and the Roosevelts.

His speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Tuesday was yet another in that line.

It was in that Kansas town that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 gave his "New Nationalism" speech in which the 26th president spoke of the federal government's important role in protecting the rights of average Americans in the workplace and providing a social safety net.

So Osawatomie became a useful venue for Obama to place his administration's efforts in the arc of American progress as defined by how well a government defends its citizens from capitalism's excesses.

For instance, alluding to the new Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, Obama said:

"Financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them. I intend to make sure they do, and I will veto any effort to delay, defund, or dismantle the new rules we put in place."

Anyone expecting news in the speech in the form of major initiatives, would have been disappointed. Obama wasn't there to announce new programs or goals.

Instead, he aimed to place himself squarely, by his lights, on the right side of American history.

To that end, Obama provided a quick historic review of the circumstances that led TR to usher in the Progressive Era of government regulation, a reaction to the great trusts of the era running roughshod over average Americans. It was a historical example sure to draw comparisons to the present era.

The speech also gave Obama the opportunity to tap into the populist zeitgeist reflected by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

OBAMA: "... There has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness. Throughout the country, it has sparked protests and political movements – from the Tea Party to the people who have been occupying the streets of New York and other cities. It's left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. And it's been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women who are running for president.

"But this isn't just another political debate. 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 reminded Americans that even a president whose visage is on Mt. Rushmore was once viewed by political opponents as an un-American (sound familiar?)

"In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here, to Osawatomie, and laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. 'Our country,' he said, '...means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy ...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.'

"For this, Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax."

Tuesday's speech was just one more road test of Obama themes to be heard during the coming presidential campaign, the main one being the president's argument that the 2012 contest is a choice between his concern for everyday Americans versus Republicans' alleged lack of same.

The bonus for Obama was that it allowed him, a Democratic president, to visit a politically red state to lionize one of America's most admired Republican presidents. Nothing like beating up your Republican opponents with a Rooseveltian big stick provided by the progressive, toothy and bully GOP president of the last century.