Obama's Most Important Speech Was Not About Race

07/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One year ago, on June 22 in Manchester, New Hampshire, Barack Obama told an audience that "we cannot settle for a second Gilded Age in America." Those were meant to be fighting words; they were preceded by Obama's paean to Teddy Roosevelt who, along with Wisconsin's Senator, Fighting Bob LaFollette, personified Progressive Era reformers reining in corporate power in America's first Gilded Age.

In Manchester last June, Obama spoke admiringly of TR's political courage, recalling that as New York governor "he had already begun to antagonize the state's political machine by attacking its system of favors and corporate giveaways." When Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was assassinated, "the greatest fears of all the entrenched interests came true," Obama said. "Over a century later, America needs this kind of leadership more than ever."

The New Hampshire speech is arguably Obama's most important. It transcends social issues such as race and goes to the heart of contemporary America's overarching economic and political inequalities and institutional failures. It also helps to place Obama in a larger narrative that Americans understand and can identify with.

A year ago, Obama saw a close parallel between the "robber barons, railroad tycoons and oil magnates" of the first Gilded Age, and today's powerful oil and drug companies executives and financial interests that dominate "a new economy where more wealth is in danger of falling into fewer hands; where the average CEO now earns more in one day than an average worker earns in an entire year."

Is Barack Obama willing to shake things up in Washington if he is elected president, like the reformers of the Progressive Era?

There are doubters, in part because Obama has not consistently and forcefully employed the themes he struck in Manchester a year ago. Indeed, Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote recently that "in terms of policy, [Obama] is not looking to do the unexpected, or the radically new. He made an unspoken calculation long ago: that he, himself, is change enough."

Yes, it could be that Obama's unique persona, campaign skills and a favorable political climate might be enough to win in November. But I wouldn't count on it. At the moment, poor John McCain is floundering but less than a year ago, his chances of winning the Republican nomination were written off by the political pros. More than any other Republican on the national stage, McCain has a legitimate claim of his own to a piece of the progressive tradition, fighting his party's establishment on campaign finance reform, pork barrel spending and other important issues. And one of his heroes is Teddy Roosevelt.

The late but not-so-great Chicago machine alderman, Paddy Bauler, famously proclaimed: "Chicago ain't ready for reform." Political insiders of every stripe never are. Today, the same Democratic Party insiders in Washington who thought it was good, prudent politics to support George Bush's Iraq War in 2002, and who have not seriously challenged the administration's numerous civil liberties transgressions, are already urging Obama to play it safe in the run up to November 4th. Playing it safe will not win this election. More than 80 percent of Americans say the country is moving in the wrong direction. From planes, trains and automobiles, to schools, hospitals and the financial markets, there are few major American institutions, public or private, that are not broken and in need of major reform.

The country is not merely ready for "change"; it is ready for real reform -- the word that Obama used over and over in his New Hampshire speech. That speech -- and more examples of his political courage -- is Obama's ticket to the White House.