Have You Done Your ‘State of the Union’ Homework?

Tonight, President Obama is slated to “go populist” on America in his third State of the Union address. Insiders say he’s going to lay out a “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last.”

The speech will continue a theme President Obama laid out in Kansas last month – that in today’s economy the game has been rigged against the nation’s middle class.

On December 6, Obama gave an important and revealing speech in Osawatomie, Kansas — the best we’ve heard from him since the campaign trail. Building on Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism language from Roosevelt’s Aug. 31, 1910, speech in Osawatomie honoring abolitionist John Brown, Obama reprises his platform of populist economics. But Obama is not yet Roosevelt. (See The Osawatomie Speech: Obama and Roosevelt.)

“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have gained without doing damage to the community,” Roosevelt said in his speech. “We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”

Before watching tonight’s State of the Union address, read up on its historical context. Read Roosevelt’s original speech and President Obama’s December address. Here are some quotes from both:

“One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.”–President Theodore Roosevelt

“Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments – wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paycheques that weren’t – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”–President Barack Obama

“For 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 Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.”–President Theodore Roosevelt

“I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.”–President Barack Obama

“The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.”–President Theodore Roosevelt

“But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free licence to take whatever you can from whomever you can. He understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest. And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for consumers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe. And today, they still can’t.”–President Barack Obama

“The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.”–President Theodore Roosevelt

“I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property …”–President Theodore Roosevelt

“We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country.”–President Barack Obama

“In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.”–President Barack Obama

“Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education and research and high-tech manufacturing – all those things that helped make us an economic superpower? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That is not politics. That’s just math.”–President Barack Obama

Here’s also an excellent essay by Robert S. La Forte on Roosevelt’s 1910 Osawatomie speech.

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