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.