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

278 comments

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Barack Obama is a liar. Out of one side of his mouth, he claims to be on the side of We The People. Out of the other side of his mouth, he is giving away trillions of dollars to his elitist buddies, while shredding The Constitution and squashing the rights of American citizens.

Posted by yankee2000 | Report as abusive

[...] Obama’s Ted talk [...]

If not late, it is about time the President delivers such speech. One problem with the speech is that it was less grand on idea. The country needs a big progressive idea, and a president ready to fight for it. The country will fair better from the marriage of Keynes and Freidman’s economics than an ideological zero sum game.

Posted by 0okm9ijn | Report as abusive

If Obama has to rehash history from 100 years ago to stem the same tide of corporate/rich/elite powers from overrunning our democracy and from the chasm that is the wealth gap between the middle and poor classes in America, what does that say about our citizens?

The most successful Progressive policies were not fundamentally enacted until FDR and after, and only after unregulated free market capitalism destroyed the banking and investment sectors in 1929. Almost exactly 100 years later, history repeated and we continue to suffer the malaise created by unregulated profiteers whose greed exceeds their ethical and moral conscience.

Republicans today, in spite of the recent collapses in the housing, banking and investment industries as backers of the taxpayer subsidized bailouts of industry, continue to fight for fewer regulations and greater tax breaks to the very people who would again create the conditions that would again lead to nation wide financial ruin for tens of millions.

Some people never learn, and as a whole we Americans seem most guilty of this…otherwise we would not be reliving this nightmare.

Lowering taxes on the wealthy in the midst of two wars is a key indication Republicans care little about debt or its affect on the economy and the American psyche. Handing bailouts to banks and investment houses are key indications Republicans do not really care about free market Capitalism or national debt, but rather how to support the wealthy at all costs. And in so allowing the debt to grow to levels that facilitate their justification to call for an end social programs (a.k.a. ‘Starve the Beast’ Strategy), Republicans demonstrate they have zero interest in ‘Human Welfare’ in America. Pure greed fueled evil?

Part of what has made America great since the Great Depression has been America’s capacity for good will and the consideration for human welfare. When we sacrifice men and women and materiel at taxpayer expense to fight wars to free other people and protect our interests, who are we serving? All Americans: rich and poor and the principles upon which America was founded. Why is the will of the Republicans to believe in the cause of war for our collective welfare around the world? Why are they so willing to expend the lives of typically poor and middle class men and women for what are essentially human welfare principles but fail to ask those who have the financial capacity to support these endeavors to pay their share through higher taxes? (especially when the rich don’t typically see their children expended in war)

What is the price of a human life? An American soldier’s life? When one considers the poor and middle classes sacrifice the most when America is at war, can it not be said the poor and middle classes have historically always paid more than their fare share?

Yet Republicans continue to beat the drum that 50% of Americans pay no taxes. I’d love to see the financial standing of those men and women who have given their lives these past ten years, add up their collective wealth & taxes paid as a percentage of income and stack it against an equal number of the folks Republicans love to support. And if you further add those who have lost limbs, eyes, and minds, I’d be willing to bet the collective wealth of those who have sacrificed still would not come close adding up to the wealth of one of those at the top who dodge their taxes every year; but their taxes paid as a percentage of income (all taxes) would far exceed their wealthy counterparts.

And yet Republicans seem to work very hard to co-opt the military as their mascot. Ironic.

When will America learn?

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

When you have a guy like obama, who doesn’t have the experience to run a gas station, must less the country, you have to expect he must look to others for what to say.

Posted by BillyJimBob | Report as abusive

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