Kansas City, Mo. — President Barack Obama received a warm welcome Tuesday from a small eastern Kansas community and plenty of applause in politically unfriendly territory for calling for a return to economic fairness, but some audience members questioned whether he's done enough to create jobs or can follow through on his speech.
The Democratic president traveled to Osawatomie, a town of 4,400 residents about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City, to invoke former President Theodore Roosevelt's praise a century ago for having government intervene in the economy to provide "a square deal" for the disadvantaged. Roosevelt gave his "New Nationalism" speech in 1910 in Osawatomie.
Hundreds of people crowded into the local high school's gym for the speech, many of them standing to cheer and applaud at times. But Obama supporters and fellow Democrats appeared to be over-represented; he received about 42 percent of the vote in Kansas in 2008, and his Republican opponent is all but certain to carry the state next year, just as the GOP nominee has done in every presidential election since 1964.
And, even as many of Obama's listeners applauded — and once, one shouted "Amen!" — some wondered whether he can follow through. Will Cutburth, a 32-year-old Iraq war veteran from Osawatomie and a Republican, said Obama's message is important, but the president faces gridlock in Congress.
"He's talking about re-establishing the way it used to be in America. It used to be a given in America that you'd do better than your parents," Cutburth said. "They're great ideas, but I don't see how he's going to be able to do it."
Republicans considered the visit part of Obama's re-election effort, though some GOP officials attended. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback welcomed Obama to Kansas in a statement but kept a previous commitment to attend a symposium in Wichita on the state's future. However, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer did attend.
"There's no chance that he'll win this state," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who worked for a year on the staff of former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now U.S. health and human services secretary. "This is a national speech, designed for a national audience."
Kansas GOP Chairwoman Amanda Adkins said Obama's message — she described it as calling to redistribute wealth and pitting upper-income Americans against the lower and middle classes would not play well.
"It will incite more frustration in regard with his lack of executive management as it relates to the economy," she said. "I think it will backfire."
The president's speech came amid his efforts to pressure congressional Republicans into voting for a plan to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut that would increase taxes for wealthy Americans. Many Republicans — including Kansas' all-GOP delegation — have resisted what they view as an appeal to spark class warfare.
"This isn't about class warfare," the president said. "This is about the nation's welfare."
In Kansas, the GOP swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot in 2010 and increased its control over the Legislature by tapping into frustration with the president and fellow Democrats in Congress.
The election represented a big shift to the right for Kansas, which had elected moderate Republicans and Democrats as governor for a generation, including Sebelius. She attended the speech, also receiving a warm welcome.
Cutburth said he's willing to vote for Obama next year, but skeptical that the president can deliver on his call for a return to economic fairness.
Anthony DeLeon, a 30-year-old Tyson Foods manager from nearby Gardner, is a registered Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008 but wasn't sure he would again. He said Obama hasn't delivered a stronger economy.
"The jobs are not there for so many people that I know," DeLeon said as he waited to get into the speech. "He's got to start to get people to work — lots of people."
Alice Heath, a 62-year-old retired food service manager, liked Obama's speech and plans to vote for him again, as she did in 2008, but she's also looking for signs of economic improvement because, "We're all suffering."
And January Clark, the 27-year-old manager of a Wal-Mart produce department in Paola said: "With milk at $4, people who are middle class or lower really can't do a whole lot. There's no room for anything extra."