“In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here, to Osawatomie, and laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. ‘Our country,’ he said, ‘…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.’ For this, Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.”
So spoke President Barack Obama on a visit to Osawatomie, Kansas, earlier this month, in a speech that many believe was intended to lay the philosophical groundwork for his re-election campaign in 2012. (Osawatomie already had deep historical significance in Roosevelt’s time, as the site of a battle between Kansas “free staters” led by abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery raiders.
Why did President Obama choose to link his political fate to the Osawatomie tradition? How did his speech, in form and content, stack up against the Rooseveltian original? What can we learn about the enduring themes of American politics from this comparison?
Six prominent scholars and writers — all knowledgeable about the Progressive Era as well as the contemporary political scene — discussed this question on Thursday, December 22nd.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech
President Barack Obama’s Osawatomie speech
E.J. Dionne Jr., Obama’s Osawatomie Offensive, Washington Post, December 6, 2011