Obama’s Ted talk

By Michael A. Cohen
December 7, 2011

The president’s new populism comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s new nationalism.

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.


Has there ever been an American President more regularly compared to his predecessors than Barack Obama? Since arriving on the national stage Obama has been weighed against Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Truman, Carter and even George W. Bush. But after his remarkably full-throated populist speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas we have to add another one to the list – Theodore Roosevelt.

The choice of Osawatomie for a speech that basically establishes the outlines of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was hardly accidental. It was the sight of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech, a set of remarks that laid the foundation for his 1912 run to recapture the White House and signaled his own ideological break with the conservative wing of his own Republican Party.

In evoking Roosevelt’s century-old rhetoric, his attacks on concentrated wealth, and his call for a more active and engaged federal government, Obama yesterday embraced a grand tradition in American politics — that of the anti-business populist standing with the ordinary American. In doing so, Obama has framed the 2012 election in terms that have been the focus of presidential campaigns since Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912: what is the proper role of government in the lives of the American people?

In his speech yesterday, Obama evoked the political divides that existed in the United States at the dawn of the 20th century. He noted that Roosevelt was called a Marxian a century ago for making many of the same policy suggestions that Obama makes today (and gets called a socialist for proposing). In fact, it was the 1912 election that was witness to the first iteration of the big government vs. small government disagreement that still divides liberals and conservatives.

In 1910, Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech plunged him back into the national spotlight and put him in direct conflict with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Though both men were Republicans, Roosevelt had become increasingly dismayed by Taft’s rightward turn as President – at the same time that Roosevelt was moving in an even more progressive direction. The speech was an effort to bring the GOP along with him.

Speaking for 90 minutes on a humid late August day in Kansas, Roosevelt told the thousands in attendance that, “the citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being,” that no longer should the pursuit of profit be given precedent over “human welfare.”

How did Roosevelt hope to accomplish this goal? Through a “vigorous chief executive” that would make itself the “steward of public welfare.” “The national government,” said Roosevelt,  “belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the national government.” Roosevelt called for a host of new progressive policies; a graduated income tax, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, increased regulation of corporations, and an end to child labor.

Conservative Republican powerbrokers decided to stick with Taft, who sternly argued that “a national government cannot create good times.” So Roosevelt abandoned the party to run as a Bull Moose progressive. Though he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson (and Wilson’s own progressive New Freedom agenda) it was the first and perhaps only presidential election to offer two visions of activist government – and it ushered in a wave of progressive legislative accomplishments, including many of those promoted by Roosevelt.

What is so eerie about Roosevelt’s century-old prescription for what ailed America is how much it mirrors our political discussions today. Today, the country is still arguing over the progressivity of its tax code, unemployment insurance for those out of work, the proper regulation of big business, the ability to collectively bargain, and even, per Newt Gingrich’s latest big idea, child labor.  That such ideas — long accepted in American society — are being debated anew is largely the result of a Republican Party that has wholeheartedly embraced the mantra of anti-government rhetoric. Today these most basic elements of the American social contract are under assault.

Indeed, yesterday Obama made a direct connection between the conservatives of the 1910s and the modern GOP, noting that, “just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington . . . with the same old tune, ‘The market will take care of everything…’ And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.”

In chastising the GOP’s “you’re-on-your-own economics” Obama made the most persuasive case that any national Democrat has recently made against the country’s growing income inequality. However, by noting the damaging effects of inequality not only on the middle class and economic opportunity, but the very underpinnings of American democracy, he broadened his argument in a manner that put him directly in sync with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just as Roosevelt argued that “you must have the kind of law and the kind of administration of the law which will give to those qualities in the private citizen the best possible chance for development,” Obama argued yesterday that among the most basic American “values” is for every American to “get a fair shot” at the American Dream.

With such a nakedly populist approach Obama has set the 2012 race up as a battle between those “mighty commercial forces” of which Roosevelt spoke a century ago and the 99% of the today’s nomenclature.  Liberals could rightly complain that Obama is a bit late to the game here — and that perhaps his first two years might have been more successful had he focused on a populist agenda from the first days of his presidency.

But whatever he should have done in the past, it’s no longer possible for Obama to seek out a fuzzy middle ground today. The country has been deeply roiled by uncompromising populist movements – the anti-government Tea Partiers on the right; the anti-Wall Street Occupy movement on the left. While Republicans have been quick to embrace much of the Tea Party agenda, yesterday’s speech suggests that Obama – at least in the near-term – is adopting Occupy’s language.

Now that he has picked sides so too must the American people. More than ever, they must decide what kind of government they want for the future: one that provides opportunity to its citizens as Obama laid out yesterday or the more stripped down version of national governance as offered by Republicans. Yesterday, with the help of Teddy Roosevelt, Obama put them on notice that they’re going to have to make that decision at the polls next November.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy and a payroll tax cut compromise during a visit to Osawatomie High School in Kansas December 6, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

279 comments

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