Obama's Osawatamie Speech Proves He's the Anti-TR
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity."
"President Obama: Hold Wall Street banks accountable by fully investigating the big bank fraud that caused the housing crisis." When I read that call recently from MoveOn.org, I could have sworn I heard the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt cry out, “Bully!” When TR went to Osawatamie, Kansas, to proclaim his New Nationalism, he made exactly the same demand: “Every special interest is entitled to justice ... the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.”
Though he briefly warned of “mob violence,” TR spent most of that 1910 speech warning about the excessive influence of “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” “If I could ask but one thing of my fellow countrymen,” he concluded, “my request would be ... that they always exact justice from one side as much as from the other.” As president, he had shown that he was serious about enforcing justice against the super-rich, most famously when he demanded prosecution of the massive railroad trust, the Northern Securities Company.
Just over one hundred years later, Barack Obama went to Osawatamie to lay the groundwork for his reelection campaign by donning the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt. He praised TR, who “understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest. And so he busted up monopolies.” Obama called on the nation to create new rules, “strengthening oversight and accountability” of the super-rich—what we now call “the one percent” —especially in the financial sector.
Yet the word “justice” never crossed his lips. And he made no commitment to prosecute anyone.
That’s just one of the differences between the two Osawatamie speeches. other differences go even deeper. As this election year begins, examining them can shed useful light on the rhetorical foundation Obama is building for his upcoming campaign.
It’s true that both speeches were scripted with the same mythic drama: the “enormously wealthy,” abusing their privilege, are making life much worse for the rest of us. To call the drama mythic is not to say it’s untrue. Every myth is a blend of truth and fiction. In our time, as in TR’s, the power of the 1 percent does indeed inflict unjust suffering on the other ninety-nine.
The crucial difference between the two presidents lies in their explanation of that suffering and their vision of what America could be if the powers of the super-rich are curbed.
Roosevelt laid out his principles directly: “The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” What the nation needed, he insisted, was equal opportunity for all: “The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare.”
Though Roosevelt understood that the nation’s welfare required an expanding economy, he made that a secondary concern: “the most important elements in any man's career must be the sum of those qualities which, in the aggregate, we speak of as character.” for TR, character meant the will to restrain one’s selfish material desires for the greater good. The nation would be successful only insofar as “the average man and woman are honest, capable of sound judgment and high ideals, active in public affairs—but, first of all, sound in their home life ... We must have a genuine and permanent moral awakening.”
It was the immorality of the super-rich, more than anything else, that seemed to anger TR—their lack of self-restraint as they built up incredible wealth through unfair advantages, preventing everyone else from having an equal chance at success, hence his passion for prosecuting their misdeeds. The poverty of the masses (anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent of Americans were poor, according to historian Nell Painter) was a distinctly secondary concern.
Indeed, in the greater America that TR envisioned at Osawatamie, no one would be guaranteed any material success at all. As Obama quoted TR: “Each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him" and nothing more; only “a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies.”
Though Obama agreed that “this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot” and “plays by the same rules,” the central theme and most famous soundbite of his speech— “This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class” —is foreign to the spirit of the New Nationalism. The term “middle class” is utterly absent from TR’s text.
More importantly, the promise of America as Obama depicted it would have been unimaginable to TR. “America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity,” the current president declared. The “fundamental issue” now is that “gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.”
The tiny but crucial word “can” is the key to Obama’s political persona in 2012. Not “might” or “may,” as TR surely would have said, but “can”: “in this country, even if you're born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class.” Obama makes that a promise. For him, the well-being of the nation is a sure path to the well-being of each individual.
Roosevelt would have put it precisely the other way around. He highlighted only one “promise” in his speech: “The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good.” Yet he went on to say something that should sound startling to our ears, as super PACS thrive on the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision: The Constitution “does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.”
It is hard to imagine Obama ever going that far. Though he warns of the undue influence of massive wealth in politics, as TR did, the issue of fair and just government is not the bottom line of the current president’s stated agenda. His fundamental appeal is not to any sense of abstract principle or national character, but to the supposed desire of every American to gain and keep the comforts of middle-class life.
This may well be a sign of the immense progress the United States has made since TR’s day. Back then, with poverty rates running so high, it was hard to imagine any future in which all could be promised a secure place in the middle class. The very fact that a president can now stake his reelection chances on such a promise suggests how much higher our expectations are today.
Given our abundance of resources and technology, rational government policies that genuinely aim at material well-being for everyone have every chance of succeeding, as long as the privileges of the one percent are consistently curbed. And that may well require the kind of prosecution MoveOn.org now calls for.
Obama’s failure to use the word “character” even once in his speech may also be a sign of progress. From Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to today’s crop of would-be GOP standard-bearers, “character” has always been a code word for the supposed superiority of white people, especially white men. The concept has been used to justify all sorts of discrimination, and now more often proposals to legislate morality, which should have no place in any vision of a better America.
Yet we’ve heard the word “character” from Obama many times before, and we can expect to hear it from him again on the campaign trail. His own interpretation of it may reflect his personal belief. But it is certainly testimony to the continuing appeal of an old—many would say outdated—language of American ideals. no candidate can expect to win without paying at least some homage to those ideals.
isn’t that precisely why Obama went to Osawatamie and proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Thedore Roosevelt? Having suffered such bitter strife for the sake of such a modest liberal-centrist agenda, he must know better than anyone how dearly many Americans long to return to the imagined past that TR represents, a past where restraint—of every “other,” of fundamental change, and of one’s own desires—supposedly reigned supreme. It’s not a fantasy that I, for one, would like to see America move even an inch toward fulfilling.
But if Obama heeds the call of MoveOn.org and truly dons the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt by prosecuting those who have plunged the nation into such dire financial crisis, he would surely serve the nation well, and very possibly his own reelection chances, too.
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