In channeling TR, perhaps Obama will channel both men’s mission to use government to ensure a more equal society.
“In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity.” -Theodore Roosevelt
It was just a month ago that President Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas to lay out a new, more populist agenda for his re-election campaign and to press Congress to extend the two percent payroll tax cut he instigated last year. He chose to travel to Osawatomie in large part because this was the site where Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous “New Nationalism” speech. It was there that the former president excoriated the power of wealthy special interests and demanded a greater role for government in ensuring that the average American was able to enjoy equal economic and political opportunity.
In his remarks, President Obama rejected what he called “you’re on your own economics.” He argued strongly — like TR did more than a century earlier — that the triumph of democracy means not merely the triumph of the free market but the triumph, as TR said, of “an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”
He also spoke eloquently about the alarming rise of income disparity in the United States, fueled in part by the steady decline of wages among the middle class over the past few decades and in part by the more recent decision to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans to the lowest rates in more than half a century. This inequality, Obama continued, not only “distorts our democracy,” it also makes a mockery of the perennial American belief that even those born with nothing can, through hard work, earn their way into the middle class.
As reported in the New York Times today, a number of recent studies now show that President Obama was quite correct in pointing out how hard it has become for poor Americans to move up the economic ladder. Indeed, it now appears that Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their counterparts in much of Western Europe and Canada. One alarming study, for example, found that fully 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom 20 percent income bracket stayed there as adults. Equally disturbing is the fact that the poor in America have less than their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe and hence have to work their way up from a lower position, while at the same time benefitting less from the type of social safety net available in other developed countries. This renders America’s poor — especially America’s poor children — much more vulnerable to debilitating hardships.
The great gap that has once again emerged in the United States between the wealthy few and the seemingly permanently impoverished many, separated by a shrinking middle class, is not something that either Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt would have found acceptable. Both men, in fact, dedicated themselves to the idea, as TR said in his Osawatomie speech, that one of the “chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege.” Both men also believed, to quote TR again, that the “essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.” In his day, TR noted, this struggle appeared as the effort of freemen “to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.” This was especially necessary at that time, he went on, because 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 hold and increase their power.”
Sadly, Theodore Roosevelt, running as a third party candidate, lost the 1912 election and hence never got the opportunity to take on the forces of special privilege he attacked so eloquently in his Osawatomie speech. But his distant cousin Franklin (who was an enormous admirer of TR) did, and in the process transformed the federal government — for the first time in American history — into an active instrument of social and economic justice.
It is interesting to note that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, one a Republican and one a Democrat, consistently rank among the most popular and important presidents in American history. It is equally interesting to observe that they earned this respect not so much through compromise or equivocation, but by adhering to a political philosophy that was not afraid to take on the forces of wealth and privilege in the best interest of the country as a whole. TR called this philosophy the New Nationalism; FDR called it the New Deal. It was based, as TR said, on the idea that the executive branch of government must serve as “the steward of the public welfare,” that the judiciary should “be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property,” and that the Congress “shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.”
It is encouraging to see President Obama pay tribute to the progressive ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and, through him, FDR. Whether he will adhere to them in the long run is an open question. Powerful forces are certainly arrayed against him and, as evidenced by the extreme policies of the conservative right, he may have to make some hard choices about whether or not his penchant for compromise is really in the best interest of the country. Here, too, he might find strength in the words of TR, who, near the close of his Osawatomie speech, remarked:
I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property…
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938. He is also the co-author with Henry Henderson of FDR and the Environment.