President Obama spoke today in Osawatamie, Kansas, a place where Teddy Roosevelt spoke in 1910. The Kansas historical society helps us remember the speech:
This speech, later called the “New Nationalism Address,” evoked a wide variety of responses. It was labeled “Communistic,” “Socialistic,” and “Anarchistic” in various quarters; while others hailed it “the greatest oration ever given on American soil.”
Obama, clearly channeling TR, delivered a monumental speech today that foreshadowed the general tone and major themes of his coming campaign for reelection.
He spoke of post-war America, a place with the strongest middle-class in the world, where the best businesses in the world made and sold the best products in the world. This was an economy that had conquered the challenges presented by The Industrial Revolution.
He then spoke of the structural changes our economy has experienced since, focusing on rising inequality and the shift to an economy dominated by speculation and bubbles that has accelerated since 1980. He spoke of another technological revolution that has made it possible for businesses to do more with less labor, and to shift production and management overseas where workers come cheaper. He spoke of the rising inequality that resulted from these changes, and explained that most Americans have seen prices increasing and paychecks not. He mentioned that a while children born in property in post-war America had a better than 50% chance at making it to the middle-class, a child born in poverty is now predicted to have a 33% chance at making it to the middle-class. “That’s inexcusable. It’s wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.”
He reminded us that these changes present major challenges to our economy and to our people. He said that the level of inequality now present in America “distorts our democracy.” And then he got to the question–where do we go from here.
His answer is one that I am glad to have heard from our President. He spoke of two races: one is a “race to the bottom” where the winner will be the nation that allows for the cheapest labor; the other is a “race to the top” where the winner will be the nation with the most skilled and educated workers who generate the greatest innovation and make the best products. Of the first, he said “that is a race we can’t win, and we should’t want to.” Of the second race, he said that the things we have always done best–like innovation–are what make us suited to win the race to the top, a race we can win and would want to win.
He said ”we need to meet the moment, up our game, and realize we can only do that together.” To do this, he argued, we must make education a national mission, and make a world-class commitment to science and engineering. He mentioned that if we find a way to an economy not based on financial speculation and bubbles, our best and brightest won’t always gravitate to Wall Street. Instead, we can be making and selling things “stamped with the three proud words ‘Made in America.’”
He then quoted TR, “On the whole, in the long run, we can only go up or down together,” and ended by saying “And I believe America is on the way up.”
I believe that with our Presidents new commitment to these old American principles, we can finally hope so.