It’s a busy time of year. Perhaps you didn’t hear President Obama’s December 6thspeech in Osawatomie, Kansas. It’s worth a closer look—both for its specific language and general themes. The speech was a billed as a thematic statement of Obama’s vision for the economy and if that’s the case, we can expect to hear more in the coming campaign about inequality, mobility, opportunity, and even fairness. Given the state of the economy, we should expect these issues to attract attention, but still the speech sounded like a departure for a president who has often shied away from taking a populist stance.
I’ll be honest and say that Osawatomie had not previously been on my radar. But the choice of using this heartland town as the site for a major economic address was not accidental. In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt delivered what’s been called his “New Nationalism” speech, a milestone for the progressive era, where he called upon government to regulate capitalism and elevate the public interests above those of money and property. The press reports piqued my interest and I tracked down TR’s address. Reading it, I was surprised by how contemporary it felt.
TR used his address to rail against the rising power of corporations and moneyed interests that “too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.” The very triumph of America was at stake, which at that time held the hopes of anyone believing in the desirability of democratic and popular government. Property was to be respected and protected but not given undue influence – and certainly not “the right of suffrage.” (We should send this speech to the current Roberts Court.) TR believed that the unleveled playing field was tipping the scales of justice and the promise of America could only be realized with “practical equality of opportunity for all citizens.”
“…when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.
I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
Pardon the dated gender language and my bolding of the passage, but for me all it would take to make this passage ring true today is a few new pronouns. Now, let’s see how President Obama picks up on these ideas in his speech delivered over a hundred years later.