On August 31, 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt went to Osawatomie, Kansas to give a speech that laid out his vision for America. He called it New Nationalism, and it called for major, striking changes in national policy. President Roosevelt wanted to regulate corporate influence, provide better social services, step up “conservation” and provide safeguards for working people. He promised a “square deal” and stated in no uncertain terms that this would be a major shift: “I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, 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.” (You can read the full speech here.)
President Obama, perhaps seeking to claim Roosevelt’s mantle, went to Osawatomie last Tuesday to make a speech about the middle class and equality. But where Roosevelt spoke of sweeping change to combat ever-growing corporate power, Obama couched his ideas in the language of common sense. Substantively, they were mostly the sort of things he’s been talking about for months: an updated tax code where the rich pay “their fair share” (read: more), Republican intransigence on the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, extending the payroll tax cut. There wasn’t much new, but Obama presented the ideas as the kind of things all Americans can get behind. It was partly a speech to get his agenda moving, but it was also without question a campaign speech, just like Roosevelt’s was.
What’s interesting to me is the reaction the speech got. Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech got him called a socialist and a communist, and so did Obama’s (Rush Limbaugh called it “a Marxist attack on America”). And while neither one was anywhere close, Roosevelt was certainly proposing more radical ideas and doing so in more radical language. I’m not sure whether it’s comforting or disturbing to know that rhetoric was still overblown and apocalyptic in Roosevelt’s time. But it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence that the right-wing critics of Obama’s speech are attacking him in the same terms that were once used against one of the heroes of the Republican party. Obama spoke about coming together and common sense solutions, and got himself blasted by the right. Can you imagine what would have happened if he said what Roosevelt did 101 years ago: “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive”?
Photo credit: Flickr user Arlington Carl
This week: Another edition of Adventures in Congressional Incompetence. The Senate is holding up President Obama’s appointments to a few minor government agencies, like, say, Medicare. Gail Collins explores all the exiting and creative ways in which Senate Republicans are ensuring vital government posts don’t get filled. Read it and weep.