Obama Follows Roosevelt's Populist Path to Kansas

Obama Follows Roosevelt's Populist Path to Kansas

By Alexis Simendinger - December 6, 2011

President Obama on Tuesday will visit Kansas, a conservative bastion he lost by 15 points to John McCain in 2008, to deliver populist economic arguments he hopes can carry him in his 2012 re-election bid.

In a detour from the battleground-states itinerary he's followed all year, the president is visiting the state his maternal grandparents called home in an effort to echo some of the "Square Deal" sentiments first voiced in a 1910 speech by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Despite all the TR trimmings, the president’s message is rooted in contemporary Democratic campaign themes -- echoes of “the people vs. the powerful” and “putting people first.” The president will continue to argue that Republicans in Washington have opposed economic policies with his name on them just to score political points and because the GOP sides with the wealthy and special interests instead of the middle class.

The president this week also is urging Senate Republicans to confirm his nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The bureau by law is independently funded through the Federal Reserve, not Congress. A Senate vote on Obama’s nominee could occur Thursday. Republicans have vowed to block former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray until the structure of the CFPB is overhauled.

The president and his White House team intend this week to court local television and radio stations through interviews to be broadcast in at least seven states -- Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah -- in an effort to pressure GOP senators to confirm Cordray. Without a director in place, the new consumer board, criticized by Republicans as too independent of congressional oversight, lacks the power to fully exercise its authority under law.

If the Senate fails to confirm the nominee, Obama will say he used his bully pulpit to try to make his case. Then he could use this latest defeat to attack Republicans as obstructionist, a technique that appeals to his Democratic base and could eventually gain traction with all-important independent voters.

Republican lawmakers want Congress to control the consumer board’s appropriations. They want it to be run by a politically appointed and confirmed board, not a single director. And conservatives oppose the CFPB’s broad authority to ban financial products it decides are “abusive.”

Senate aides, speaking to reporters Monday at the behest of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said no one from the White House had spoken directly to any GOP senators leading up to the vote on Cordray. They rejected the assertion that large financial institutions are behind Republican opposition to the CFPB, or that GOP senators are anti-consumer.

In Osawatamie, Kan., about 60 miles south of Kansas City, Obama will speak at a high school and echo ingredients from Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” message delivered 101 years ago to 30,000 people during a Midwestern swing after he left the White House.

More than 1,000 people lined up last weekend to snap up free tickets to hear Obama’s address, according to the Kansas City Star.

The president is in the midst of a public assault on Republicans to approve extensions of the payroll tax and unemployment insurance, both of which expire Dec. 31. In the Senate, separate versions of legislation backed by Democrats and Republicans failed to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold to proceed last week. Democrats are eager to work out a compromise, and while Republicans in both chambers have professed support for the payroll tax extension, the two parties continue to clash over how to offset the lost revenue over the long haul. Obama wants to create a surtax on the wealthy; Republicans oppose raising taxes, and a negotiated accord may not get ironed out until mid-December.

The president ventured into the White House briefing room Monday to deliver a televised statement encouraging Congress to approve a tax cut extension for the middle class and insurance benefits for the unemployed. Some Republicans say they oppose the proposed unemployment insurance extension because they believe it offers federal incentives not to work.

“This isn’t just something that I want,” Obama said. “This isn’t just a political fight. Independent economists, some of whom have in the past worked for Republicans, agree that if we don’t extend the payroll tax cut and we don’t extend unemployment insurance, it will hurt our economy.”

As Obama exited the briefing room without taking questions, the White House displayed a “countdown” clock on two video screens showing “26 days” and assorted minutes and seconds until middle-class Americans will see their taxes rise. Payroll taxes were reduced by 2 percentage points temporarily this year to give taxpayers more spending money in a tough economy. Without congressional intervention, the tax for the Social Security trust fund reverts in January 2012 to 6.2 percent. Obama says the tax should not go up because the economy remains vulnerable. While the payroll tax has been suspended to provide some economic stimulus, the trust fund gap is plugged using the general treasury.

The president has asked Congress, as part of his American Jobs Act, to extend the tax break for another year and expand it to create a more generous 3.1 percent benefit, which the White House said would be equivalent to a tax break of $1,500 for the average family. Obama does not appear to have the votes in Congress to enlarge the payroll tax cut above 2 percent, so he focused Monday on winning a continuation of the existing break. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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