President Obama speaks proudly and often of his grandparents and their generation -- the men and women who confronted and beat the Great Depression and fascism. But for all of his words of admiration and affection, he has yet to show that he truly understands what made the Greatest Generation truly great. His remarks last Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas reflected a common misconception of what their struggles, labors, and achievements entailed and what they have to say to us today.
Seeking to regain the political initiative from Republicans, Obama went to Kansas not only to present his ideas on how we might reinvigorate the American economy, but also to reiterate his commitment to enabling Americans to pursue and realize the nation's historic purpose and promise. He specifically chose Osawatomie because it was there, 101 years ago, that the former president and Republican-turned-progressive Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism" speech. As Obama noted, it was in that speech that TR said, "Our country...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."
Progressives welcomed President Obama's speech. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, "It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation's travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism." Progressive editor Matt Rothschild exclaimed, "I wish Obama would go to Kansas more often. His speech... was unlike any I've ever heard him give. He finally embraced progressivism."
Undeniably, Obama made some strong points in his remarks. He finally pointed his presidential finger at the "greed" of bankers and "irresponsibility" of regulators and all that they have wrought. He spoke of the gross inequality that has come to mark American life and how it has corrupted our democracy. And he insisted that government has an important role to play not only in responding to the continuing joblessness and suffering, but also in addressing the ever intensifying inequality and declining opportunity we have experienced.
Nevertheless, elements of the president's Kansas speech make me doubt that he fully grasps what needs to be done and how to do it. My reservations stem from the way he spoke of his grandparents -- and my parents -- and their generation. Before he quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Obama said:
My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton's Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out... And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.
All this is true. But like many who praise the Greatest Generation's values, the president left out the most critical, progressive, and democratic, if not inspiring, part of the story.
The men and women who saved the nation from economic destruction and political tyranny, and went on to create the middle class and turn the United States into the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth, didn't do so simply by having the right values and working hard to achieve them. They did so by electing and re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They chose a leader who not only believed in them, but also rallied and engaged them directly in progressive initiatives and struggles of recovery, reconstruction, and reform.
They undertook these labors against historical expectations, in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and despite their own terrible faults and failings. In the process, they subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, reconstituted the "We" in "We the People," established a Social Security system, rebuilt the nation's public infrastructure, and improved the environment. They did so, that is, by harnessing the powers of democratic government and in the process making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
We should honor our parents and grandparents from the Greatest Generation. The best way for us to show our appreciation is to live out their politics.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyJKaye.