President Obama speaks at Osawatomie High School in Kansas on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )
Reporting from Osawatomie, Kansas, and Washington — With a nod to Theodore Roosevelt, President Obama positioned himself as the champion of the middle class while blasting the "you're-on-your-own economics" of the modern Republican Party, a message likely to form the basis of his reelection effort.
The White House chose what seemed like an unlikely venue for the president's speech, a small town in the deeply Republican state of Kansas.
But to Obama's advisors, it was the ideal locale to deliver an argument they had spent weeks crafting, one that they hope will help him appeal to a key voter bloc.
It was here, 101 years ago, that Roosevelt outlined his agenda of "new nationalism" -- a call for progressive reforms and an active federal government committed to reining in the power of concentrated wealth.
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged the hardship many Americans face and called this a "make-or- break moment for the middle class."
TRANSCRIPT: Obama's Kansas speech
"This isn’t just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time," he said. "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's theme, which White House advisors hope will catch the attention of centrist voters, is that today's Republican leadership has abandoned the party's legacy in favor of defending the interests of the powerful.
The president said some "seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia" and "want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess."
"In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that have stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for too many years," he said. "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% values or 99% values. They're American values, and we have to reclaim them."
Republicans scoff at Obama's efforts to align himself with Roosevelt, whose calls for corporate reform came at a time in which there was very little regulation of business at all.
But Obama’s team argues he is embracing the spirit of Roosevelt's beliefs in a modern context, as the president pushes Congress to extend a payroll tax break that will save the average family $1,000 annually, unless lawmakers allow it to expire at the end of the year.
The president pointed to actions in a Republican administration last decade to pass "tax cuts for the wealthy" and slash regulation and oversight.
"And what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country," he said, and, "a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy."
"We simply cannot return to this brand of you're-on-your-own economics if we're serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country," he said.
It's the latest attempt by Obama to draw a thematic link with one of his predecessors. Early in his administration, he called policies meant to reverse the economic decline part of a "New Foundation" -- an echo of another Roosevelt, Franklin, and his "New Deal."
As he began laying the foundation for his reelection bid this year, he seemed to be making a Truman-esque campaign against a "Do Nothing Congress."
Now honoring Theodore Roosevelt, Obama said: "We still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, 'The fundamental rule in our national life -- the rule which underlies all others -- is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.'"