Barack and Teddy

Obama has many of Roosevelt’s worst instincts and policies.

President Obama undoubtedly saw a shrewd political move in his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Tuesday, where a hundred years ago another progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, delivered his “New Nationalism” address. It was at a time, like now, of a split in Republican Party ideology or at least in party positions.

In that 1910 speech, Roosevelt declared, “[T]he great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.

“The absence of effective state, and, especially, national restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise."

Important and disturbing are the political agendas and attitudes toward capitalism that the current president shares with the progressive president of a century ago.

How neatly those words of Roosevelt fit the rat-tat-tat of Obama against the evil millionaires and billionaires he so eagerly wishes would only pay “their fair share” of income taxes.

Obama and Roosevelt share a number of similarities. As with Teddy, one of Barack’s favorite words is “I,” (as revealed in “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, page 20). Both men went to Harvard. But while there, Roosevelt was an outstanding scholar. No one knows the well-hidden grades Obama made.

Even as a young state assemblyman in the 1880s, Roosevelt’s progressivism embraced an activist government to alleviate social ills, historians have written. Roosevelt’s antipathy toward corporations resembles that of Obama. But Teddy envied the corporate captains who had worked their way up from the bottom. Teddy’s disappointment never to have had the opportunity to succeed in business is a far distance from Obama’s puny aspirations as a community organizer.

By the time he became president, Teddy had prepared himself for the office in every aspect, save one (the same failing of Obama): Namely, “understanding capitalism and the industrial nature of modern America,” as historians Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen write in “A Patriot’s History of the United States.” Also like Obama, Teddy did “more to impede business than any President since Old Hickory” (Andrew Jackson).

Like Obama, Roosevelt sided substantially with labor, and at one point said, “To hell with the Constitution” (Tindall and Shi, “A Narative of America”). Obama regularly skirts the Constitution.

In his speech in Kansas, Obama described Roosevelt not only as a progressive but as a “socialist” and a “communist.” Roosevelt was not a socialist or a communist, although he was called a communist by Eastern political opponents, histories say.

“This is the defining issue of our time,” Obama said in his Kansas speech. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement.”

Roosevelt fancied himself, as does Obama, as a friend of the oppressed. But, unlike Obama, he saw small business owners as his “natural allies,” writes George Mowry in his history “Era of Theodore Roosevelt.”

William Howard Taft said he never met a man “more strongly in favor of strong government.” (Mowry, “Era of Theodore Roosevelt.”) A quality Obama must admire.

The notion that “businesses were different from individual behavior, or need to be penalized for success beyond what was reasonable was a progressive  principle that soon emerged in many regulations,” Schweikart and Allen write in their history. For the first time during Roosevelt’s Administration, the federal government acted against industry only as “a potential threat, not genuine behavior.” A precedent the Environmental Protection Agency these days considers standard practice.

Teddy sided with labor, as does Barack. Teddy is quoted as saying, “We do not wish to destroy corporations” he generously noted, “but we do wish to make them subserve the public good” (wrote Paul Boyer in “The Enduring Vision”). “Implied in Roosevelt’s astonishing comment was that corporations do not serve the public good on their own.” A point of view Obama undoubtedly shares.

Historians have also written that Teddy “never appreciated what it took to meet a payroll or balance a firm’s books,” a lack of experience Teddy and Barack share.

Roosevelt, the conservationist, set aside 16 million acres of public lands. As recently as this October, Obama set aside 285,000 acres in the west for “solar zones.” More land for more Solyndras.

One important area where Teddy and Barack differ is in national defense. Roosevelt doubled the size of the Navy during his time in office. In Obamaland, on the other hand, military officials are girding for a possible $800 billion cut over the next 12 years. Obama is not a distinguished Commander-in-Chief.

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