Change that Channel
So now it’s Theodore Roosevelt’s turn. One wonders how many other presidents our current president will channel before he’s through. Let’s see, we’ve already had Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. He’s either presented himself or been presented as our redeemer president (Lincoln), our Ivy League scholar president (Wilson), our he-saved-us-from-economic collapse president (FDR), and our youthful celebrity president (JFK).Why, President Obama has even tried to draw parallels to a not-so-youthful celebrity president by the name of Reagan.
But for the moment it seems to be Teddy’s turn. At last count that’s half of the Mt. Rushmore quartet. And half will likely be it, what with only notorious slaveholders left to claim a connection to. But there are others, yes, there are others. And not all of them are flattering, so stay tuned.
Actually, the TR-Obama parallel does work, but not for the reasons Mr. Obama might suppose. Speaking recently in Osawatomie, Kansas, where TR issued his 1910 call for a “New Nationalism,” President Obama sought to reclaim his Kansas roots and enlist the Rough Rider in his campaign against those he has the audacity to hope he can portray as today’s robber barons. The trouble here is that the first President Roosevelt had his eye on what could be argued were legitimate threats to the American present and future. Not so President Obama.
A century ago, there was a case to be made for progressive reform, whether it took the form of trust busting, federal regulatory measures, a federal income tax, or conservation measures. But today a much stronger case can be made that what is truly needed is a drastic scaling back of the very state that TR initiated.
At the turn of the last century reigning in the excesses of the “Gilded Age” made sense. At the start of this century reigning in the excesses of the Entitlement State makes even more sense. What was at stake then seemed to be nothing less the American Promise. At stake today is the American Promise. In his day TR contended that that promise was being damaged by those rugged individualists (robber barons?) who had benefited from it. Living in a free country, they had, in Roosevelt’s estimation, taken unfair advantage of that freedom (as well as Jeffersonian rhetoric about the “best government” being the “least government”) in building industrial empires and amassing private fortunes the likes of which the founders had never envisioned.
In fact, Jefferson himself actually assumed that a smaller government would mean greater equality. Even then there were worries that bigger government meant sweetheart deals with big business. The original tea party, as in the Boston Tea Party, was as much about the cozy relationship between the British East India Company and Parliament as it was about the tax on tea. What did Edmund Burke call that company? “A government in merchant’s clothing.” The same thing might have been said about the Northern Securities railroad holding company of J.P. Morgan, E.H. Harriman, and James J. Hill that TR sought to cut down to size.
Today that same American Promise is being threatened by those who advocate for or benefit from the very state that Alexis de Tocqueville long ago warned against, which also happens to be the very state that TR helped bring into being. But just as the founders of the republic did not anticipate the great concentrations of wealth of the late 19th Century, neither did the founders of progressivism imagine the size and reach of the state that exists in the early 21st Century, not to mention the size and reach of the financial predicament we now face. Certainly a progressive founder by the name of Theodore Roosevelt did not anticipate, much less plan for, such a state.
But this is the state—and state of affairs—that we currently face. This is the state that threatens the American Promise—and in a much more immediate and much more permanent way than was the case a century ago. Americans today are threatened by the excesses and corruptions of the unholy alliance between business and government (read “crony capitalism”) that the original progressive era fostered, and yes, even encouraged.
We are threatened by a tax code and tax rates that promote dishonesty and stifle investment. We stand threatened by a regulatory reach that discourages entrepreneurship, even as it seeks to give the “green” light to favored forms of risk-free “entrepreneurship.” We are threatened by an environmental movement that is far less interested in maintaining the Rooseveltian model of public stewardship than it is in engaging in a thinly disguised attack not just on particular economic development projects, but on capitalism itself. And we are being threatened by an unfunded and unaffordable entitlement state that has “grown like Topsy” since TR. In fact, it has grown to the point that would make the size and scope of said government unrecognizable to TR if he were he on hand to witness what his now primitive efforts wrought.
Yet the modern American government, not to mention the citizens (read “clients”) who live under it, would not be unrecognizable to Tocqueville. If President Obama is to be believed, the twin threats to the American future are private concentrations of wealth and power and the inevitable inequalities that result. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville foresaw a different sort of threat and a single threat at that. He predicted a new kind of despotism, a soft despotism brought into being by democracies that had come to emphasize equality over liberty, a democratic despotism, if you will, that “does not break wills (but) softens them,” that “does not destroy (but) prevents things from being born,” that “does not tyrannize (but) gets in the way,” so that in the end it reduces its citizens to a “herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
As we look at where we are today, it’s hard to argue that Tocqueville was wrong. More than that, it’s impossible to believe that Theodore Roosevelt ever envisioned creating the kind of state that Tocqueville cautioned against, which is to say the very state that Barack Obama both defends and seeks to expand.
So let’s return to Osawatomie. In 1910 TR journeyed there to speak as an ex-president gearing up to challenge his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, come 1912.He was also an anomaly. As of 1910, a fiftyish TR was moving decisively to his left at a time in life when most of us either have settled opinions or are heading in the other direction. By 1910, the president who had governed, at least in part, to blunt more radical alternatives, had become an ex-president issuing populist-like calls to recall conservative judges when he wasn’t railing against the “wealthy criminal class.” Not even a Bernie Sanders, let alone Barack Obama, has dared deploy rhetoric quite that incendiary.
Nonetheless, there is a parallel of sorts operating here. In 1912 an ex-president and newly-minted man of the left tried to recapture the White House. In 2012 an incumbent president and long-established man of the left will be seeking to retain his Pennsylvania Avenue address.
It’s also true that President Obama, like President Roosevelt before him, looks to Europe as a beacon of sorts.TR saw Bismarck’s Germany as a model for American progressive reform. Today Mr. Obama gazes upon the social democracies of Europe and pronounces that he has seen the future and it works. Never mind that Europe, or at least Europeans, will have no future, unless the current status quo of high debt and low birth rates is reversed – and soon.
Still the larger question remains: Would a re-born TR endorse the Obama linkage and strategy? In other words, would he agree that he and President Obama are the book ends for modern progressivism? It’s at least fair to wonder. Today the real threat to America’s future has little, if anything, to do with income inequality. Rather, it’s the fact of huge debt, coupled with the prospect of crushing debt, courtesy of out-of-control entitlements and an overweening government.
There is also the looming threat of an increasingly hostile world featuring a resurgent China and a renegade Iran among other players. What would a President Theodore Roosevelt do under such circumstances? it’s at least fair to suggest that a leader who came to the presidency intent on making the United States into a major world power, a president who had fought against a dying Spanish empire and whose sons would fight against a rising German empire, would be very worried about an Obama administration that doesn’t seem to be at all worried about the prospects for American military decline in the 21st Century.
Of course, both Presidents Roosevelt and Obama are Nobel peace prize winners. More than that, both evidenced embarrassment about their awards: Roosevelt because he settled a war (between Japan and Russia), rather than having fought in one; and Obama because he had yet to do much of anything.
To be sure, for his time TR was an advocate of big government at home and abroad. There is little doubt that his progressive era did set the country on its current path. But would the president who used the “bully pulpit” to attack Americans for living lives of “vapid pleasure and ease” approve of our age of entitlements, not to mention the popular culture that pervades it and feeds off of it? For that matter, would the president who shepherded regulation of the meat packing industry through Congress approve of “nanny state” liberalism that seems bent on shepherding all of us in innumerable ways?
President Obama didn’t mention this, but it might be worth noting that, there were a few other Theodore Roosevelts whom Barack Obama would not at all care to channel. There was the pessimistic Roosevelt who poured over Census data and worried that WASP America was committing “race suicide.” There was the anti-diversity Roosevelt, who blasted “hyphenated Americans” for clinging to the cultures of the homelands they had left behind. There was the politically incorrect Roosevelt who thought that the American west “could not have been kept as a game preserve for squalid savages.” And then there was the elitist Roosevelt who thought his job was not to determine what the American people thought, but rather to convince them to think what he thought. “I don’t care what the American people think, I only care what they ought to think,” is a vintage TR line.
Oops, maybe there is a parallel here to a current White House resident with elitist inclinations and Ivy League credentials. Then again, maybe not. After all, his elitism includes a suspicion that in crisis times lesser American mortals cling to God and guns. Oops, there goes another chink in the Obama-TR link.
Obviously, this business of presidential parallels can be a dicey one – when it comes to our incumbent president and his big game hunting, safari undertaking predecessor. Moreover, did anyone bother to mention to Mr. Obama that Mr. Roosevelt lost in 1912?
Dicey or not, one more presidential parallel does come to mind, even if it’s not one that would likely have occurred to our current president. This would be a troubling parallel between President Barack Obama and President James Buchanan. Faced with the immediate peril of secession and civil war, President Buchanan looked the other way and let history take its course. Faced with the looming peril of economic collapse and a nuclear Iran, President Obama prefers to scowl at “millionaires and billionaires,” while seeming to be quite content to let history take its course. This may well prove to be the formula for victory in 2012, but it’s not exactly the path that the TR of Rough Rider and Bully Pulpit fame would have taken.
And if President Obama does manage to win a second term, what happens then? If he is re-elected and continues to avoid confronting the real dangers before us, if that should be our fate, then the same German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whom TR sought to emulate, will turn out to have been wrong after all. On the eve of the 20th Century and the age of Roosevelt, Bismarck glanced across the ocean, shook his head, and muttered, “God takes care of drunks, little children, and the United States of America.” Maybe so then. Maybe not now.
Chuck Chalberg is an American Experiment Senior Fellow. When he isn’t teaching American history at Normandale Community College, he might be seen performing as Theodore Roosevelt.