Barack Obama Tries To Channel Teddy Roosevelt
Barack Obama now looks to the Rough Rider himself for inspiration. Can't he find it himself?
Yesterday, President Obama reached back in history over a century to a speech by our 25th President in an attempt to shift the political debate:
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Laying out a populist argument for his re-election next year, President Obama ventured into the conservative heartland on Tuesday to deliver his most pointed appeal yet for a strong governmental role through tax and regulation to level the economic playing field.
“This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules,” Mr. Obama said in an address that sought to tie his economic differences with Republicans into an overarching message.
Infusing his speech with the moralistic language that has emerged in the Occupy protests around the nation, Mr. Obama warned that growing income inequality meant that the United States was undermining its middle class and, “gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try.”
“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class,” Mr. Obama told the crowd packed into the gym at Osawatomie High School.
“At stake,” he said, “is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.”
Mr. Obama purposefully chose this hardscrabble town of 4,500 people, about 50 miles south of Kansas City, Kan., where Theodore Roosevelt once laid out the progressive platform he called “the New Nationalism” to put forth his case for a payroll tax cut and his broader arguments against the Republican economic agenda in what his aides hoped would be viewed as a defining speech.
Though it was lacking in specific new policy prescriptions, the hourlong speech, and the days of buildup that preceded it, marked the president’s starkest attack on what he described as the “breathtaking greed” that contributed to the economic turmoil still reverberating around the nation. At one point, he noted that the average income of the top 1 percent — adopting the marker that has been the focus of the Occupy movement — has gone up by more than 250 percent, to $1.2 million a year.
The new tack reflected a decision by the White House and the president’s campaign aides that — with the economic recovery still lagging and Republicans in Congress continuing to oppose the president’s jobs proposals — the best course for Mr. Obama is to try to present himself as the defender of working-class Americans and Republicans as defenders of a small elite.
Republicans, though, portrayed the visit to Osawatomie (pronounced oh-suh-WAHT-ah-mee) as an effort by the president to paper over his failed stewardship of the national economy. Though unemployment levels dropped to 8.6 percent last month, they remain higher than the level at which any president has been re-elected since the Great Depression.
It’s not surprising that Obama would be hitting these themes. In reality, they aren’t all that much different from what we’ve seen from the President in different matters for a long time. Last December, even as he was making a deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, the President was talking about how the “rich” needed to pay their “fair share,” terms that were, as all political terms are, left purposely vague. The Administration repeated that theme during the March/April budget showdown, during the July/August debt ceiling showdown, and against in September when the President called on the debt Super Committee to put forward a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction and put forward the idea of the “Buffet Rule,” another political term that was left purposely undefined. So, in reality, there’s not much new in what the President had to say yesterday other than the location of where he said and the invocation of the memory of the Rough Rider, which seems to have all started with an appearance by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet the Press that Stephen Taylor wrote about earlier this week. In some sense the whole speech struck me as a campaign kickoff speech, although we’ve had many of those types of speeches from the President lately, which makes the fact that the entire trip was funded by the taxpayers rather than the campaign rather ironic.
As an initial thought, though, one wonders if the White House didn’t reach too far in trying to make an analogy between what turned out in the end to be a rather bland policy speech and TR’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech, which set the ground for his 1912 campaign for the President and the formation of the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party. Ron Fournier noted some of the differences in a piece at National Journal:
A century ago, Roosevelt called for a broad range of social and political reforms including a national health service, social insurance for the elderly, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, workers’ compensation for work-related injuries, a graduated federal income tax and the right for women to vote.
He railed against the influence of special interests on politics, calling for strict limits and disclosure of campaign donations and the registration of lobbyists.
Obama led with his pitch to extend the payroll tax then laid out a vague long-term agenda: Raise taxes on the wealthy, regulate Wall Street and invest in education, research and infrastructure. Like Roosevelt, he did call for personal responsibility: Parents need to be involved in their kids’ education, students need to study harder, some workers need to be trained for new jobs and home buyers need to live within their means.
Is that all there is? In contrast to Roosevelt’s agenda and Obama’s own case for bold action, the president’s solutions seemed small or unformed.
Moreover, as Jonathan Tobin notes, the problems that America faces in 2011 are in some ways fundamentally different from the ones that existed in Roosevelt’s time:
[U]nlike 1910, the problem today is not that the government is too small and lacks the power to check the excesses of the market. It is that its power is so vast. Today’s federal government is a leviathan whose boot is pressed upon the throats of both individuals and corporations; it consistently deprives our free marketplace the oxygen it needs to thrive and grow. Obama began his speech by speaking of the mortgage debacle that triggered the 2008 collapse but failed to mention the bad debts were largely caused not by an untrammeled free market that begged for more regulation but by government intervention that demanded loans be given to those who could not possibly pay them off. Those who occupy our streets demanding a bigger government and more entitlements may have Obama’s sympathy. But they are out of touch with both economic reality and the sentiments of most taxpayers.
The great dilemma facing the nation is not the grinding poverty of 1910, when no safety net was available. It is the enormous debt that has been created by a system of entitlements that will bankrupt the nation. The middle class Obama says he wants to save will be crushed by that debt. But Obama has ridiculed proposals to reform the system and harps instead on raising taxes on the wealthy, a measure that will kill job creation while doing virtually nothing to fix the problem.unlike 1910, the problem today is not that the government is too small and lacks the power to check the excesses of the market. It is that its power is so vast. Today’s federal government is a leviathan whose boot is pressed upon the throats of both individuals and corporations; it consistently deprives our free marketplace the oxygen it needs to thrive and grow. Obama began his speech by speaking of the mortgage debacle that triggered the 2008 collapse but failed to mention the bad debts were largely caused not by an untrammeled free market that begged for more regulation but by government intervention that demanded loans be given to those who could not possibly pay them off. Those who occupy our streets demanding a bigger government and more entitlements may have Obama’s sympathy. But they are out of touch with both economic reality and the sentiments of most taxpayers.
The great dilemma facing the nation is not the grinding poverty of 1910, when no safety net was available. It is the enormous debt that has been created by a system of entitlements that will bankrupt the nation. The middle class Obama says he wants to save will be crushed by that debt. But Obama has ridiculed proposals to reform the system and harps instead on raising taxes on the wealthy, a measure that will kill job creation while doing virtually nothing to fix the problem.
And it’s worth remembering just how bizarre some of Roosevelt’s ideas were, not just for his ideas, but for ours. Matt Welch does a great job of cataloging those in his piece at Reason, but it’s this quote where TR defines that “New Nationalism” he spoke of in Osawatomie in 1910:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.
What Roosevelt was asking for then, wasn’t just “social justice,” but a sublimation of the individual to the state, or as he referred to it, the nation, and a concentration of power in the hands of the Executive. Sadly, we’ve seen a lot of that over the past 100 years and the results haven’t exactly been all that great. I have no doubt, though, that TR, with his fascination with the myth of war-as-adventure would very much enjoy exercising the enhanced foreign policy and war making powers that the President has acquired since he held the office, especially since he was lobbying for American involvement in the foolish European war that become World War One almost as soon as it began in 1914. In fact, one can say that America may have been fortunate that TR lost the Presidential election in 1912, and declined to run in 1916, although one can’t really say that the Wilsonian take on the war was ultimately any better.
All of this brings up another thought. For some bizarre reason, this Administration seems to have a compulsion to compare this President to his predecessors. At various times, Barack Obama has been the next FDR, the next Jack Kennedy, the next Ronald Reagan, and now the next Teddy Roosevelt. What’s next resurrecting the legacy of Millard Fillmore? A President who is truly a leader comfortable in their leadership doesn’t need to be comparing themselves to their predecessors as much as this President’s surrogates do. All it does is make him look weak. Rather than trying to be TR, Obama needs to be Obama. The problem is, he’s been Obama for 3 years now and we can all see the results.
Yves Smith sums up the President’s speech quite nicely:
Wow, I have to hand it to Obama’s spinmeisters. They’ve managed to find a way to resurrect his old hopium branding by calling it something completely different that still has many of the old associations.
That pretty much sums it up. There was nothing new in this speech that we haven’t heard from Barack Obama since he was just a junior Senator running for President. He can make a claim, perhaps, that the rhetoric worked in 2008, although I’d argue that the main reason he won then is because everyone hated Bush, and by extension McCain, and the economy was in horrible shape. Whether he’s going to be able to use the same kind of class warfare rhetoric to divert the public’s attention from his own record of poor performance, broken promises, and bad leadership is an open question.
Photo via Washington Examiner