What Booker T. Washington Can Teach Barack Obama


Historians David Beito and Jonathan Bean have a fascinating article up at the History News Network comparing President Barack Obama to the 19th-century African American leader Booker T. Washington. The two men, Beito and Bean argue, share a similar mixed race background and employed similar tactics in forging successful political alliances. But there are some differences:

Despite the many similarities, the philosophical worldviews are profoundly different. Washington repeatedly emphasized that thrift was the basis of advancement. "You cannot plant a tree in air," wrote Washington, "and have it live." The secret of success was to shun excessive debt, delay gratification, and "learn the savings habit; until we learn to save every nickel and every dollar that we can spare." Washington's strategy eventually paid off. Without Washington, it is hard to imagine the rise of the black middle class in the 1950s. It was this middle class, often the product of black colleges founded on the Tuskegee model, which made the civil rights movement, and thus President Obama, possible in the first place….

Like most men of his time, Washington did not believe that anyone could spend their way to success. Progress ultimately rested on a solid foundation of hard work, thrift, and production. Excessive debt, especially without the means to repay it, only created a trap leading to more debt and regress. It is doubtful that Washington could imagine the endless bailouts of our own day. They certainly would have appalled him.