Theodore and Barack in Osawatomie


Walter Nugent is Tackes Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame and a member of HNN's advisory board. He is the author of numerous books, including "The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism," "Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction," and most recently "Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansionism."

On August 31, 1910, Republican ex-president Theodore Roosevelt gave a rousing speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, against inequity of wealth.  On December 6, 2011, Democratic President Barack Obama did the same.  What was similar and what was different about what they said?  (Osawatomie, by the way, is pronounced “Ah-so-WAH-to-me.” Network newscasters who mispronounced it should have checked with a historian who has lived in Kansas, like me.)

Roosevelt and Obama both said that inequality of wealth and income is unfair.  It’s against the American spirit and dream.  So it must be reversed.  In TR’s day, as the first Gilded Age ended, moguls named Morgan, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and others had amassed wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.  One man, John D. Rockefeller, owned more than 1 percent of the entire national wealth.  In Obama’s and our day, the new Gilded Age, the wealthiest 1 percent (and especially the top one-tenth of 1 percent) have steadily increased their share of wealth and income since the late 1970s, while most Americans’ income has flat-lined or declined.  In TR’s day, this seemed patently unfair.  It does today too, except to Republicans who cry “class warfare”—as they have ever since William Jennings Bryan ran against William McKinley in 1896.

What to do about it?  Roosevelt at Osawatomie proposed the following:  thorough, federal regulation of railroads and all other interstate corporations; graduated income and inheritance taxes; banking reform to prevent panics and failures; conservation of natural resources; laws setting maximum levels of working hours and wage levels sufficient to provide a decent life for working families; laws (both federal and state) providing compensation for injured workers; and regulation of working conditions for women and children.  The goal was “equality of opportunity for all citizens.”  TR proclaimed:  “I stand for the square deal…. Not merely… for fair play under the present rules of the game, but… for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”  Therefore, “We must drive the special interests out of politics…. Every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office.”  The country needed, he said, a “New Nationalism” that would “put the national need before sectional or personal advantage.”

Obama at Osawatomie in 2011 declared that inequality, the decline of “balance and fairness,” has become “the defining issue of our time.”  It is, therefore, “a make or break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”  Obama proposed making higher education more accessible and “demanding more” of our schools rather than laying off teachers; encouraging a world-class commitment to science, research, and the next generation of high-tech manufacturing;” building infrastructure, putting back to work “the over one million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed;” and revamping our tax code to “reflect our values.”  At this moment, “we need to extend a payroll tax cut that’s set to expire at the end of this month,” but beyond that, “we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally…  Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education, and research, and high-tech manufacturing?  Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest”?

Both leaders, a century apart, pointed out that inequality had gone unchecked.  The American people, then and now, needed to re-take control, in the true progressive tradition.  Obama concluded:  “we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, ‘The fundamental rule in our national life—the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’  I believe America is on its way up.”

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