President Obama’s remarks last week in Osawatomie, Kans., the site of a similar populist message delivered by Republican Teddy Roosevelt in 1910, were steeped in history – national, political and psychological. Back in 2008, Obama was elected by offering a stirring vision of bipartisanship to a divided nation, but soon after taking office, it became clear that he was blind to the level of hatred directed towards him and would pursue his vision of bipartisanship despite no evidence of cooperation from the other side. In someone with such a keen sense of history, this blindness to reality had all the markings of an obsessive disorder.
But his Osawatomie speech suggested that Obama is evolving towards a new, healthier approach in that it is both bipartisan and aggressive. “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot … Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them,” he said, showing his old obsessive bipartisan disorder. But he also isolated Republicans for the first time, accusing them of not sharing those values: “There’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who … tell us if only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger … And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.” Rather than trying to woo Republicans into the bipartisan fold, he was forcing them into a corner on “the defining issue of our time” to either bare their teeth or capitulate to the greater good.
This is progress on both the political and psychological fronts: political because it may either break the gridlock or reveal the hostility at the core of the Republican agenda; and psychological because it suggests that by finally recognizing the opposition’s hatred, he is accepting that the capacity for such hatred is an irrefutable fact of human nature.
This recognition lends more portent to his choice of venue. Osawatomie was home to abolitionist John Brown, and it was looted and burned by pro-slavery forces during the bleeding Kansas days. Obama may unconsciously recognize that the animosity directed towards him is a modern manifestation of the hatred that drove the nation into civil war and be telling us that he is finally learning from the recent past, breaking out of the fruitless, ahistorical pursuit of bipartisanship that has limited his achievements in office to date.
In this case, Obama’s history is inextricably linked to the nation’s. John Brown murdered five slaveholders in 1856, and now there is a statue in the Osawatomie State Park named for him. Kansas, where Obama’s mother was born, was admitted to the Union as a free state because of Brown.
On a psychological level, Obama’s ability to face and confront the hatred against him — both historical and contemporary — is his real “defining issue.” And two days after his Osawatomie speech, he let his attackers know he means business. When asked about Republican Candidates accusing him of being an appeaser, he quickly replied, “Ask bin Laden and the 22 of 30 al-Qaeda operatives taken off the field if I’m an appeaser.” Obama clearly appreciates the stakes: as he must know, the third-party election bid that followed Roosevelt’s Osawatomie moment ended in his defeat.