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Why Barack Obama Is not a Modern-Day Theodore Roosevelt!

Ronald Radosh

The faux populist Obama is at it again. Yesterday, trying to echo Theodore Roosevelt’s famous talk in Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1910 — when the former president laid out his call for a “New Nationalism.” Barack Obama said yesterday: “This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules.” Assuming the stance of an anti-Wall Street crusader, the president, who made a deal with Big Pharma on the drug issue and the Big Insurance Firms to gain their support for ObamaCare, pandered to the OWS crowd and tried to echo their cries about the injustice to the 99 percent of the people oppressed by Wall Street.

As A.G. Sulzberger put it in the New York Times:

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.

Channeling TR, President Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “cited health-insurance companies, mortgage lenders and financial firms. For too many Americans, he said, hard work no longer pays off, while those ‘at the very top’ have grown wealthier than ever before. The president has periodically bashed Wall Street before, but Tuesday’s speech was more sweeping and went beyond any one industry to say that the middle class as a whole was being left behind in part due to corporate greed and wrongdoing.” As most people know, the president has been the best friend of the insurance companies, financial firms, and the mortgage lenders, who, following liberal policies, proceeded to engage in sub-prime loans to those who could not afford them.

We understand why Obama is taking this stance. Having stood by the wayside after bailing out the banks and the auto companies, and letting the economy worsen, the president found his base wavering in their enthusiasm for him, and he desperately needs their support and their legwork for his 2012 campaign. Talking Left while cooperating with the very titans he attacks is the only move he has left. So he now attacks “breathtaking greed” and uses the OWS slogans as his own; much as LBJ did with the civil rights movement when he talked to Congress and ended his speech with the words “we shall overcome.”

But LBJ did introduce a civil rights bill, while Obama is all hat and no cattle. Of course, Obama said his concern was with “the nation’s welfare,” and that he was not engaging in “class warfare.” The TR 1910 speech, to which he referred many times, according to the Times reporter, “touched on many of the same themes — often in similar language — like concentration of wealth and the need for government to ensure a level playing field. Central to progress, Mr. Roosevelt said, was the conflict between ‘the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.’” Leaving it with these quotes, it certainly sounds to those not so familiar with TR that Obama was indeed carrying on TR’s old cause.

But a more substantive look at what Roosevelt really argued belies his argument. As Ben Soskis correctly notes at TNR.com, “there was another stratum of meaning in TR’s speech at Osawatomie — a more conservative one that has received less attention.” Roosevelt, he points out, “did not mean for his speech … to be a statement of radical beliefs. He had initially hoped that by championing progressive principles, he could take control of the potentially irresponsible insurgent forces within the GOP and orchestrate a reconciliation with the party’s more conservative wing. In fact, in the address itself, he did not merely define himself as a crusader against special interests; he also signaled his resistance to the excesses of radicalism as well.”

Indeed, he continues: “A few days later, Roosevelt published another version of the speech, more conciliatory toward the forces of concentrated wealth, that he wrote himself.” Condemning the violence engaged in by John Brown [the speech was a memorial to Brown and a park named for him in honor of an 1856 battle Brown waged in Osawatomie) and making it clear that Brown’s contemporary successors were the socialists, Roosevelt wrote that Brown’s “notion that the evils of slavery could be cured by a slave insurrection was a delusion analogous to the delusions of those who expect to cure the evils of plutocracy by arousing the baser passions of workingmen against the rich in an endeavor at violent industrial revolution.”

These words could have been used by Obama to distance himself from today’s OWS movement, instead of making it appear that he understood and welcomed their protest. I disagree with Soskis when he writes that he thinks Obama “seemed to endorse the Occupy movement’s concerns while distancing himself from its divisiveness.” Indeed, most observers see Obama’s speech as precisely the opposite — as a call to arms positioning Democrats on the far left of his own party’s mainstream.

To fully understand what TR was arguing, one must turn to the seminal work of history by Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916. Sklar, who is a scholar of the Progressive Era, writes the following:

Roosevelt ... had not become a socialist, still less a radical or populist. It seems more accurate, and more illuminating of both the substance and thrust of his political thinking, to describe his position …by 1910-1912 as that of a left-wing statist who was prepared to achieve play a leadership role in achieving significant changes in the "form of government…and the nature of property rights. ... Roosevelt himself put the matter succinctly in his Osawatomie speech in the summer of 1910, when he said that in standing for the 'square deal,' he meant "not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed," and he wanted the rules changed in the direction of effecting "a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service."

Sklar goes on to explain that in TR’s eyes, his “New Nationalism” meant an alternative to a corporate capitalism less subject to public control, as well as “an alternative to socialism…to the elimination of private property in large-scale enterprise and its replacement by state ownership.” Sklar argues that TR favored a limited statism confined to management of the economy and that TR did not favor “extending state power beyond that to the restriction of individual rights, political democracy, or civil liberties.” As he sees it, TR’s form of statism was “partial and libertarian, not totalistic and authoritarian.”

So, if we continue to look at and evaluate the Obama record and position today, it is precisely the opposite of what TR intended and believed in. Favoring equality of opportunity and reward for service are conservative positions; not those of today’s liberals or socialists. They favor equality of outcome, obtained in advance by forced redistribution of wealth by the state. As TR put it, he favored “the triumph of a real democracy…and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” He favored enlarging the possibilities for “equality of opportunity.” If that did not occur, then the possibility occurred of the kind of class war and revolution from below he sought to avoid.

TR, were he alive today, would be a strong opponent of OWS, and the anarchist and revolutionary youth who peddle its message in their actions across the nation. He disavowed what Sklar calls the “visionary, extreme and radical consequences” of the program favored by the socialist Left. As TR said, “We begrudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity.” He did not favor an attack on the so-called “greed” and profits of the wealthy, which he believed they had earned, and long as it worked for the benefit of the community as a whole.

With the kind of social programs favored by our president today, such as Obamacare, which would increase the cost of health insurance and assure lower quality medical care for all, the outcome would be precisely that which Theodore Roosevelt would be horrified with. Government’s object to TR was “the welfare of the people,” not an increased statism which rather than help the people, worked to subject them to overwhelming government controls.

So when a liberal columnist like E.J. Dionne writes that TR would be furious at the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, which Dionne says “opened the way for corporations to spend vast sums in the political arena,” he is completely wrong. The decision was one that provided no government interference with civil liberties and the right of expression, and worked to benefit the AFL-CIO’s political action groups as much as that of any corporation. The words quoted by Dionne from Roosevelt do not translate directly to consideration of the decision reached by the Court on the contemporary case. Indeed, TR would be more than likely to praise it as giving labor the right to make its power and interests known, thereby balancing that of the corporations.

What Roosevelt opposed were the “special interests” that fought only for their own power and not that of the people as a whole. And that term did not refer to Wall Street or the large corporations, whom he understood were a necessary and vital part of the nation’s fabric. An opponent of radicalism and populism, Theodore Roosevelt would have, I think, having heard Obama’s speech at Osawatomie, run up to the podium thundering: “This man has no right to be taking my name in vain, and doing it in particular at Osawatomie, where I went out of my way to distance myself from the radicals and socialists. And he calls himself a professor. I think my successor at the White House has a lot to learn.”

So let’s give TR the last word, when he talks about the poor:

When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit.

Why do I not think we will hear words like this from Barack Obama, or find this quote in the next column by E.J. Dionne?

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