It is fashionable in political circles today to say that speeches don’t matter much. What’s important isn’t what people say, so this line of thinking goes, but what they do. Presidents and many other politicians break promises — they fail to follow up on strong words — they sometimes start in a certain place but then fold when the going gets tough. With cynicism about politicians justifiably high given what results they have and have not been delivering to the American people, this is an easy thing to believe.
While I have a high degree of skepticism about politicians, and know painfully well how often they fall short of their words, I am of a different view about the importance of speeches. Not most of them: having had a career in politics for more than 30 years, I have heard enough hot air and empty promises to fill up a planet the size of Jupiter. But if you look at American history, there are dozens of examples when a speech quite literally changed the course of our nation’s history. Presidents and senators and candidates, movement leaders and ministers, generals and scholars have all given important speeches that mattered. The speeches from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and at least three speeches from Lincoln’s presidency — especially the Gettysburg Address — that redefined our nation’s thinking about itself; the great Congressional debates between Webster, Calhoun, and Clay about slavery and the nature of our government; the stunning Frederick Douglass “Power concedes nothing without a demand” speech that has shaped progressive movements’ strategy ever since; the towering “Cross of Gold” speech by William Jennings Bryan that forever changed the course of the Democratic party; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address that restored confidence that our nation would survive those terrible moments of the Great Depression; John F. Kennedy’s amazing inaugural address, which helped inspire a generation to activism; Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; Jimmy Carter’s disastrous “malaise” speech; Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” speech. These are just a few examples of the many speeches that have made a real difference in American history.
Some of the above are presidential speeches. When presidents give an important speech, it matters not only in terms of historical worth, but in shaping the trajectory of what is to come in the rest of their presidency. When a president makes a big, dramatic, attention getting speech in a richly symbolic and historic setting, they are laying down a marker that becomes hard to walk away from, and are giving their presidency a context and definition that matters — especially if the members of their party and the activists to whom the speech is addressed to take up the banner. In fact, in a funny kind of way, it is precisely by taking up the banner of such a speech — praising it, embracing it, repeating its best lines and themes, giving it the maximum attention over a sustained period of time — that allows activists and movements that care about what the president said to hold him accountable. It becomes that much harder for a president to walk away from the ideas and values that inform such a big speech if people keep referencing and highlighting and quoting it.
So it is with yesterday’s superb President Obama speech channeling the great progressive trust-busting President Teddy Roosevelt. By going to Osawatomie, Kansas — where Teddy Roosevelt gave another one of those speeches that changed American history by calling for a new progressive movement and policies that would build the great American middle class in the decades to follow as much of Roosevelt’s vision became law — Obama essentially launched his 2012 re-election campaign by declaring himself a pro-middle class populist progressive in direct confrontational contrast to a Republican Party that has decided it wants to repeal the 20th Century. Progressives should enthusiastically embrace this speech and quote it everywhere we go. The President should be thanked for taking up our banner, and making it his.
I know this runs counter to the thinking of many of my friends in the progressive movement. They argue that Obama has not been the bold progressive Teddy (or his cousin Franklin) were. They point out that rather than being a Teddy Roosevelt trustbuster, his administration has not moved to break up the big banks, has not moved aggressively to prosecute any Wall Street bankers even though there is plenty of evidence for doing so, and has compromised too often with the extremist right-wing Republicans in Congress. They say he hasn’t always pursued progressive policies he has advocated in past speeches with enough aggressiveness. These are fair points which I won’t argue with here. But they miss the importance of yesterday’s speech, and the fundamental way progressives should approach this moment.
Having switched gears from an ideologically neutered “Win the Future” message to being a full-throated fighter for the 99 percent (Obama used the phrase middle class 25 times yesterday compared to zero times in his last State of the Union speech), if progressives embrace this speech and make it the most famous and oft-quoted speech of the next year, Obama will need on a policy front to be a fighter for, as he put it, for “the middle class, and all those fighting to get into the middle class.” If this becomes the defining speech for the Obama campaign in 2012, it makes it a lot harder for administration officials sympathetic to Wall Street to cut sweetheart deals on their behalf. It makes the administration’s choice on an issue like the banking settlement talks a lot more likely to go the way of middle-class homeowners instead of Bank of America’s way. It makes it easier for unions to get the administration to issue executive orders that improve pay and benefits. It makes it easier for progressives to keep bad deals on extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 1 percent from being agreed to. It makes it easier to get the President and the broader Democratic Party to come out clearly in favor of legislation like the Harkin-DeFazio financial speculation tax or the Schakowsky jobs bill.
If progressives keep praising and quoting from this speech, it will become the defining speech of the Obama Presidency. And if that means the President keeps channeling the ultimate challenger of the big corporate and financial trusts of the last Gilded Age, which works by me. When Teddy Roosevelt pushed for a national park system, food safety laws, a minimum wage, universal health care, and busting up the big corporate trusts a century ago, he was being a bold progressive thinker, and his leadership changed America and helped create the most prosperous middle class the world has ever seen. If that is who President Obama wants to emulate, I am happy to help.