White House elves scurrying about early this Christmas season slipped into reporters’ stockings the notion that President Barack Obama’s speech in Osawotamie, Kan., put him in a class with Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1910 address there defined the once-and-would-be future president’s devotion to a “New Nationalism” and launched his 1912 presidential campaign.
As Charles Pierce notes, the punditocracy want desperately to find in today’s stunted crop of current politicos the “giants of the past.” It’s a natural vice — just as National Football League commentators want sorely to persuade themselves they’re excited about Tyler Palko. The president is playing on this desire with a Heifetzian virtuosity.
Of course, a moment’s reflection will show that the dissimilarity between Obama and TR is as plain as the Rough Rider’s likeness on a Dakota cliffside. But it falls to the party-poopers among the professoriate to take that moment and say, in Bentsenesque cadences, “Mr. President, I’ve studied TR, I know TR — and Mr. President, you are no TR.”
In fact, at the rate things are going, Obama is most likely to be remembered as a thin William Howard Taft.
Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, was supposed to carry forward TR’s progressive policies. Instead, he reversed Roosevelt’s conservationism, as his Interior secretary returned public lands to private hands. Taft signed a bill raising the protective tariff — which progressives viewed as a subsidy to entrenched corporate interests. Progressive alienation with Taft’s administration created the political opportunity that Roosevelt then exploited with his speech in 1910.
The Republican Roosevelt had entered his presidency by using his first message to Congress slyly to liken white-collar “crimes of cunning” to anarchistic “crimes of violence” — like the assassination of William McKinley, which had put Vice President Roosevelt in the White House.
TR rarely missed an opportunity to bust on the trusts. Throughout his presidency he “smote with many a message the money changers in the temple of his own party” as the storied political scientist Charles Beard wrote. Fighting the corporate creations of John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, TR surfed a wave of insurgency that broke in a cascade of progressive reforms for which he had campaigned throughout his White House career.
Obama could have been a Roosevelt. But an electorate eager for a White House scourging of Wall Street got, instead, an Oval Office cozy with the corner offices of lower Manhattan — exemplified by Peter Orszag’s slide from the director of the Office of Management and Budget to Citigroup.
Failure to provide a flaying of financiers brought out tea party rage as well as Occupy anger. The achievements that Obama cited Tuesday — like Dodd-Frank regulation — came later than would have been politically helpful in defusing such movements or substantially helpful in relieving the economic and financial crisis.
Perhaps Obama should have been a Roosevelt — but not TR; the other one, the Democrat. Obama’s speechwriters appear to know it, though he doesn’t say it. In Kansas Tuesday, the president said, “trickle down … didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
What did work, and what did lead to those booms, was the Franklin D. Roosevelt program whose name Obama apparently dare not speak: the New Deal.
But Obama omits mention of the Democratic Party’s signature New Deal. He credits FDR’s landmark domestic policies — like the minimum wage and social insurance — to TR for having wanted them. He praises FDR only for the G.I. Bill — which, Obama said, garnered bipartisan support.
The president went to Kansas to do his version of the “New Nationalism.” But his New Nationalism is the old Obamaism — elevating bipartisanship above all else.
In fairness to Obama, when TR went to Kansas to begin the most progressive phase of his career, he could promise the moon. Out of office for almost two years, he didn’t have to deal with Congress or the courts. He could ride the widespread resentment of his mild successor Taft — who, unlike TR, did no rhetorical smiting, lacking both the ability and the will to push forward the progressive agenda.
But this is all the more reason that Obama should steer clear of TR comparisons. His is the mildly Taft-like administration — of which progressives expected so much and got so little. Even if Taft could, after four conservative years, have sounded like TR, there is little reason progressives should have listened.
If they should listen to Obama now, it’s only because the alternative is worse.
Eric Rauchway, a history professor at University of California, Davis, is the author of “Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America” and “The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction.”
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