Benjamin Soskis: How Pundits are Misreading Obama's Speech—and Teddy Roosevelt's





Benjamin Soskis is a Fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University. He is writing, with John Stauffer, a history of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The ghost of Theodore Roosevelt presided over President Obama's speech yesterday afternoon in Osawatomie, Kansas. Indeed, in the week leading up to the president’s Osawatomie address, the White House made clear that the President was deliberately courting analogies with Roosevelt. TR, after all, had traveled to the very same town nearly 100 years earlier to give his famous “New Nationalism” address, calling for the federal government to ensure that the prerogatives of private property did not trump the rights of the commonwealth. Obama, for his part, explicitly compared America's current economic dislocation and inequality to the dire circumstances of that earlier era, endorsing, as well, some of the remedies Roosevelt had devised in response....

But while commentators, picking up on the president’s own statements of indebtedness, are right to link the “New Nationalism” address and Obama’s remarks as cognate progressive calls to arm, there was another stratum of meaning in TR’s speech at Osawatomie—a more conservative one that has received less attention and that might also prove useful to Obama in his road to reelection....

...Roosevelt did not mean for his speech—the writing of which he largely delegated to an ally, Gifford Pinchot, who held even more extreme views on governmental authority—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....



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