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President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Osawatomie High School December 6, 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas. Obama described the middle class struggles as the defining issue of our time in the speech. (Julie Denesha/Getty Images/Julie Denesha/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Osawatomie High School December 6, 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas. Obama described the middle class struggles as the defining issue of our time in the speech. (Julie Denesha/Getty Images/Julie Denesha/Getty Images)

Analysis

Obama channels ghosts of presidents past in re-election quest Add to ...

It is hard to think of a past American president that Barack Obama has not been compared to in some way or another – except, of course, for the forgotten ones.

While his Republican foes liken him to Jimmy Carter, many of the favourable comparisons to past presidents have been cultivated by Mr. Obama himself.

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He campaigned in 2008 on a Lincolnesque vow to unite the country. He came to office in the midst of an economic disaster promising to imitate Franklin Roosevelt to fix it. He has praised Ronald Reagan as a “transformational” president he would seek to emulate.

But the dead president Mr. Obama channels most as he launches his quest for re-election is Teddy Roosevelt, the populist trust-buster who occupied the White House as a Republican but quit the GOP when he lost the party’s presidential nomination in 1912.

Mr. Roosevelt then founded the Progressive Party, nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party” in a nod to Mr. Roosevelt’s robust constitution, to run on a platform of cracking down on corporate greed and influence and reducing income inequality.

In a major speech on Tuesday on Tuesday, Mr. Obama evoked Mr. Roosevelt’s crusade against capitalist greed in the very Kansas town – Osawatomie –where Mr. Roosevelt launched his so-called “New Nationalism” platform with a 1910 speech.

The similarities between the two speeches, almost identical in length at more than 6,000 words each, are striking.

“Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism,” Mr. Roosevelt charged then.

More than a century later, Mr. Obama evoked Mr. Roosevelt’s legacy in criticizing Republicans for seeking a return “to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years.”

But will American voters buy Mr. Obama’s Teddy Roosevelt imitation? Or will they be turned off by the “class warfare” rhetoric?

There is increasing pushback against Mr. Obama's talk from not only Republicans and Fox News, but from the Wall Street crowd. Hedge fund billionaire Leon Cooperman's widely circulated open letter to Mr. Obama has struck a chord, and with not just the wealthy.

“To frame the debate as one of rich-and-entitled versus poor-and-dispossessed is to both miss the point and further inflame an already incendiary environment,” Mr. Cooperman wrote.

As Mr. Obama acknowledged himself on Tuesday, “rugged individualism and [a] healthy skepticism of too much government” are “in America’s DNA.”

But by associating himself with Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Obama hopes to establish a clear contrast in voters’ minds between himself and his current Republican adversaries.

Indeed, while Mr. Obama evokes Mr. Roosevelt’s fight for child labour laws, Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich has called such laws “ truly stupid” and suggested youngsters in poor neighbourhoods moonlight as school janitors “to build a work ethic.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama decried the fact that “the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century” and that “some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 per cent.”

But Texas Governor Rick Perry has blasted the 16th Amendment, which instituted the federal income tax shortly after Mr. Roosevelt left office, saying “the American people mistakenly empowered the federal government during a fit of populist rage in the early 20th century by giving it an unlimited source of income.”

Mr. Obama fired back on Tuesday: “Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.”

Mr. Obama’s political advisers obviously hope the President has more success with his Osawatomie speech than Mr. Roosevelt had with his.

Mr. Roosevelt lost the 1912 election as Republican voters split between the Progressives and GOP of incumbent president (and Mr. Roosevelt’s handpicked successor) William Taft. That allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House with only 42 per cent of the popular vote.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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