WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is channeling President Theodore Roosevelt, embracing a mantle of economic fairness for the nation’s middle class today that draws parallels to the progressive reformer’s calls for a “square deal” for regular Americans more than a century ago.
Obama intends to use a speech in small town Osawatomie, Kan. — where Roosevelt delivered his “New Nationalism” address in 1910 — to lay out economic themes of giving middle-class workers a fair shake and greater financial security, concepts the president will probably return to repeatedly during the 2012 campaign.
Only a month before Republican voters begin choosing a presidential nominee, the White House said Obama would describe this as a “make-or-break moment” for the middle class and those hoping to join it that demands balance and rules of the road to help strengthen working families.
“Now is not the time to slam on the brakes. Now is the time to step on the gas,” Obama said Monday at the White House. “Now is the time to keep growing the economy, to keep creating jobs, to keep giving working Americans the boost that they need.”
Obama is pressuring Congress to support an extension of a payroll tax cut that the White House says will give a $1,000 tax cut to a typical family earning $50,000 a year. The president is coupling that with efforts to renew a program of extended unemployment benefits set to expire Dec. 31.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress said a holiday-season package was beginning to take shape that would cost $180 billion or more over a decade. It would include not only the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefit renewals, but also a provision to avert a threatened 27 percent reduction in fees to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Even so, Republicans continued objecting to a scaled-back version of the bill by Senate Democrats partly paid for by raising taxes on people earning $1 million or more a year.
Republicans say such a tax increase would hurt job creation by businesses, and strong GOP opposition to that bill is likely to lead to its defeat on the Senate floor later this week. With polls showing public support for boosting taxes on the wealthy, Republicans say Democrats are going ahead with that Senate vote in an attempt to embarrass them.
“This is not a compromise,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “This is nothing more than another bill designed to fail so Democrats can have another week of fun and games on the Senate floor.”
House Republicans are developing legislation to extend an existing pay freeze for federal workers as partial payment for the tax cut and unemployment benefits. Other cost-savers are expected to include a proposal Obama advanced earlier this year to raise pension costs for federal employees, officials said. The bill may also include another presidential recommendation, this one for a surcharge on Medigap policies purchased by future Medicare recipients.
One of Obama’s main Republican rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said Monday in a radio interview that he would like to see the payroll tax cut extended “because I know that working families are really feeling the pinch right now.”
The president will be speaking at a high school about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, not far from the presidential electoral prize of Missouri, which Obama narrowly lost to Republican John McCain in 2008. Obama is expected to compete feverishly for several Midwestern states that could hold the key to his re-election prospects.
In Kansas, Obama plans to show that the economic struggles many Americans currently face are similar to the conditions when Roosevelt spoke in Osawatomie on Aug. 31, 1910, about a year after he left the White House. Roosevelt declared in the speech that he stood for a “square deal,” which he said did not only mean “fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
Republicans noted that Roosevelt also used the speech to denounce broken promises in politics, saying Obama had fallen short of rebuilding the economy, reducing the debt and curtailing special interests. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the president was “desperately trying new slogans and messages to see what sticks because he can’t figure out how to sell his last three years of high unemployment and more debt.”
Obama has frequently turned to former presidents — many Republicans — to offer examples of why Congress should support his agenda.
In September, he said Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan understood the importance of immigration and argued the country lacked “that kind of leadership coming from the Republican Party.”
Last week, the president told donors in New York that as a nation, “we all must have a stake in each other’s success.” He reminded supporters that President Abraham Lincoln launched the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences and the first land-grant colleges while Theodore Roosevelt called for a progressive income tax.
Obama said President Dwight Eisenhower, a Kansas native, built the Interstate Highway System while Republicans worked with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to give “millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill.”
“Our politics may be divided, but most Americans still understand we will stand or fall together,” he said in New York.