Obama visiting Kansas to push payroll tax holiday

WASHINGTON -- President Obama will attempt to summon his inner Teddy Roosevelt when he heads deep into Republican country Tuesday to make his case for an expansion and extension of the payroll tax holiday that is due to expire at the end of the year.

Obama heads to Osawatomie — a northeast Kansas hamlet of 4,600 where Roosevelt made his New Nationalism speech in 1910 — and will argue that America faces a make-or-break moment for the middle class.

Just as Roosevelt called for the United States to become a country that offered a "square deal," Obama intends to use his Osawatomie speech to call for a "fair shake" for middle-class families and those trying to get into the middle class, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Obama has made extending the payroll tax holiday — which lowered the payroll tax rate from 6.2% to 4.2% in 2011 — a top priority and has sought to paint the GOP as less concerned about middle-class Americans. Last week, Senate Republicans blocked an Obama-backed plan that proposed lowering the payroll tax rate to 3.1% for 160 million Americans through a 3.25% surtax on 350,000 others that earn more than $1 million.

"How can you fight tooth-and-nail to protect high-end tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and yet barely lift a finger to prevent taxes going up for 160 million Americans who really need the help?" Obama said Monday.

The visit to Kansas — a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat in a presidential race in 1964 — is Obama's first as president and comes as Republicans mount criticism that he is spending too much time in battleground states.

Obama warns that failing to extend the payroll tax holiday could hurt the economy and in recent days has spoken of an unease that federal policy is skewing in favor of the wealthy — a theme that Roosevelt hammered at in his Osawatomie speech.

In many ways, Roosevelt's speech previewed his 1912 election challenge to William Howard Taft, first in the Republication nomination contest and later as a third-party candidate. Roosevelt, then an ex-president, visited Osawatomie at a time he was becoming increasingly critical of his successor and fellow Republican.

Osawatomie leans Republican, but that hasn't dampened excitement about Obama's visit. Residents lined up for hours to grab 500 tickets that were made available to the public. The small town also was aflutter with speculation as dozens of White House officials tried to stealthily — but unsuccessfully — scout out Osawatomie last week to prepare for Obama's visit, said Mayor Philip Dudley.

And while many in the audience are unlikely to vote for Obama, Dudley said that they're eager to hear his pitch for extending the payroll tax holiday.

"I know people here that are living paycheck to paycheck, working two or three jobs and every little bit helps," Dudley said. "We do understand that we do need to get the federal deficit under control — nobody disagrees with that statement — but the payroll tax ultimately started out as our money."

But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he was doubtful that the White House's push for an extension of the payroll tax holiday resonates with Kansans, who have weathered the tough economy better than much of the country. The state's unemployment rate sits at 6.7% — well below the 8.6% national unemployment rate.

Huelskamp also contends that his constituents are more concerned about eliminating federal environmental regulations and businesses are looking for long-term certainty on tax rates.

"I think if he took the opportunity to come and listen to people instead of talking at them, the president would get an earful about regulations that are killing our economy," Huelskamp said. "He wouldn't get people saying we need a payroll tax holiday that's going to give us an extra $20 per week."