Osawatomie, Kansas – President Barack Obama cast the national debate and developing 2012 presidential campaign Tuesday as a battle between two visions of the economy, government and society.
One, he said, favors survival of the fittest and trusts markets to make life better. The other, he said, asks everyone to help one another, often through government.
“The free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world,” Obama told an audience of about 1,200 in a high school gym here.
“But…the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, and open, and honest.”
He added, “We are greater together when everyone engages in fair play, everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share.”
Obama made the remarks in an hour-long speech in the same small Kansas town where Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 laid out his vision for a “new nationalism” in which a newly active government marshaled laws and taxes to help the working poor and pressured the rich to use their wealth for the good of society, particularly through higher taxes.
“For this, Roosevelt was called a radical, he was called a socialist, even a communist,” said Obama, who’s been called many of the same things.
ALSO SEE: Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, “The New Nationalism”
“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, a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.” Obama delivered the speech as debate rages in Congress over his proposal to extend tax cuts for most Americans and to raise taxes on millionaires to pay for it. At the same time, Republicans vying for their party nomination to oppose him in next year’s election vow to roll back his regulations of Wall Street, repeal his health care law and cut taxes for the wealthy.
Republicans charge that his policies have prolonged the effects of the 2008 recession, killing jobs. He countered that great forces were already at work squeezing the middle class before the recession or his presidency, and that they need to be tamed.
“Over the last few decades, huge advances in technology have allowed businesses to do more with less, and its made it easier for them to set up shop and hire workers anywhere they want in the world,” he said. “Many of you know firsthand the painful disruptions this has caused for a lot of Americans.”
He lamented that the gap between rich and poor has been growing for the last few decades, with the average income of the top 1 percent jumping by 250 percent. In the last decade, he said, the incomes of most Americans fell by 6 percent.
“This kind of inequality — a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all,” he said.
At the same time, he said, it’s grown more difficult to move up the economic ladder. After World War II, he said, a child in poverty had a 50-50 chance of making it to the middle class as an adult. By 1980 that chance had dropped to 40 percent. And if current trends continue, he said, a child born now will have just a 33 percent chance of making the middle class.
He said the Republican answers in recent years have not worked.
The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 led to the “slowest job growth in half a century” and massive deficits, he said.
And, he said, weak or little regulation of business led to health insurance companies raising premiums and denting care “with impunity,” mortgage lenders tricking people into buying homes they couldn’t afford, and a financial sector that “nearly destroyed our entire economy.”
“We simply cannot return to this brand of you’re-on-your-own economics,” he said. “It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.”
Instead, he cited the case of Marvin Windows and Doors in Warroad, Minnesota, as an example of a company where owners and workers alike took pay cuts in bad times, but managed to avoid layoffs even in the Great Depression.
“That’s how America was built,” Obama said. “That’s why we’re the greatest nation on Earth. That’s what our greatest companies understand. Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It’s been about building a nation where we’re all better off.”
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