Obama’s Teddy Roosevelt strategy

President Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in which he wrapped himself in the mantle of Roosevelt.  Teddy Roosevelt, that is.  And, according to liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, laid out the strategy that will bring him re-election.

President Obama has decided that he is more likely to win if the election is about big things rather than small ones. He hopes to turn the 2012 campaign from a plebiscite about the current state of the economy into a referendum about the broader progressive tradition that made us a middle-class nation. For the second time, he intends to stake his fate on a battle for the future.

This choice has obvious political benefits to an incumbent presiding over a still-ailing economy, and it confirms Obama’s shift from a defensive approach earlier this year to an aggressive philosophical attack on a Republican Party that has veered sharply rightward. It’s also the boldest move the president has made since he decided to go all-out for health insurance reform even after the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate in early 2010.

The president’s speech on Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kan., the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary “New Nationalism” speech 101 years ago, was the Inaugural address Obama never gave. It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation’s travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism that now defines the Republican Party and has set the tone for its presidential nominating contest.

In drawing upon TR, Obama tied himself unapologetically to a defense of America’s long progressive and liberal tradition. The Republican Roosevelt, after all, drew his inspiration from the writer Herbert Croly, whose book “The Promise of American Life” can fairly be seen as the original manifesto for modern liberalism. Thus has the tea party’s radicalism encouraged a very shrewd politician to take on a task that Democrats have been reluctant to engage since Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy.

Obama was remarkably direct in declaring that the core ideas of the progressivism advanced by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were right, and that the commitments of Reagan-era supply-side economics are flatly wrong. He praised TR for knowing “that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can” and for understanding that “the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest.”

A White House that just a few months ago was obsessed with the political center is now not at all wary, as a senior adviser put it, of extolling “a vision that has worked for this country.” But this adviser also noted that Obama implicitly contrasted the flexibility of the Rooseveltian progressivism with the rigidity of the current brand of conservatism. The official pointed to Obama’s strong commitment to education reform, including his critique in Osawatomie of “just throwing money at education.”

“You can embrace it [the progressive tradition] if you can make the point that philosophies and political theories can evolve as facts on the ground change,” the adviser said. The liberalism Obama advocated thus contains a core of moderation that the ideology of the tea party does not. Finally, Obama has realized that the path to the doors of moderate voters passes through a wholesale critique of the immoderation of the right.

via Obama’s New Square Deal – The Washington Post.

First of all, I keep hearing Teddy Roosevelt, who was indeed a Republican,  being praised by conservatives.  But wasn’t he the leader of the ‘Progressive” movement?  Or did he represent a kind of conservatism that preserved free markets by reining in monopolies and trusts that destroy free markets?  Or what?

Second, do you see anything to prevent such a strategy of running against conservatism from working?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Mark Johnson

    Teddy Roosevelt was no conservative. He was a progressive. I have been reading _Bully Boy, The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy_ by Jim Powell. If you want to know about TR, I recommend the book highly. TR glorified war, dramatically increased taxes and regulations, and loved power. In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, he sought “far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country.” Today he would be called a liberal.

  • Mark Johnson

    Teddy Roosevelt was no conservative. He was a progressive. I have been reading _Bully Boy, The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy_ by Jim Powell. If you want to know about TR, I recommend the book highly. TR glorified war, dramatically increased taxes and regulations, and loved power. In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, he sought “far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country.” Today he would be called a liberal.

  • Dennis Peskey

    Just trying to picture Pres. Obama, mounted atop an appropriate steed, sword in hand leading the charge up San Juan hill. Nope – not happening; must get more coffee in system.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    Just trying to picture Pres. Obama, mounted atop an appropriate steed, sword in hand leading the charge up San Juan hill. Nope – not happening; must get more coffee in system.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Steve Billingsley

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/285186/new-nationalism-old-liberalism-editors

    A pretty good appraisal of this speech. Obama is desperate. Too bad the Republican party hasn’t got a top-notch candidate to run against him.

  • Steve Billingsley

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/285186/new-nationalism-old-liberalism-editors

    A pretty good appraisal of this speech. Obama is desperate. Too bad the Republican party hasn’t got a top-notch candidate to run against him.

  • Tom Hering

    If anyone is interested in reading the speech, instead of what others say about the speech, it’s here.

  • Tom Hering

    If anyone is interested in reading the speech, instead of what others say about the speech, it’s here.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Roosevelt was the forerunner of Wilson and FDR. He leaned in the direction of Big Government, and was instrumental in sending this country down the path of government intrusion.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Roosevelt was the forerunner of Wilson and FDR. He leaned in the direction of Big Government, and was instrumental in sending this country down the path of government intrusion.

  • Art Going

    Read David Brooks in the 12/9 NYTimes. TR was a different kind of conservative, more in the Hamiltonian tradition. The Tea Party movement has unfortunately obscured the legitimate role of government in encouraging growth and expansion of the economy. too bad we don’t have a Hamiltonian conservative with deep character in the race.

  • Art Going

    Read David Brooks in the 12/9 NYTimes. TR was a different kind of conservative, more in the Hamiltonian tradition. The Tea Party movement has unfortunately obscured the legitimate role of government in encouraging growth and expansion of the economy. too bad we don’t have a Hamiltonian conservative with deep character in the race.

  • Tom Hering

    There shouldn’t be any confusion about Teddy Roosevelt. He was a progressive Republican. Yes, there used to be such a thing.

  • Tom Hering

    There shouldn’t be any confusion about Teddy Roosevelt. He was a progressive Republican. Yes, there used to be such a thing.

  • Bob

    This is a hoot — watching today’s bunch of wackadoodle Repub. conservatives twist around trying to explain TR. Especially in a party that would see R. Reagan as a librul.

  • Bob

    This is a hoot — watching today’s bunch of wackadoodle Repub. conservatives twist around trying to explain TR. Especially in a party that would see R. Reagan as a librul.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Dennis,
    You and I think an awful lot alike, because those were pretty much my first thoughts. Had Teddy Roosevelt been President when Seal Team Six took out Osamma, Teddy would have been the one to do the double tap.
    And I guess that is more or less the reason I like Teddy Roosevelt so much. I’m not sure I like, or agree with all his policies, but the man had character. He knew how to lead. He didn’t mince words. And so as much as Obama might agree with Teddy on social issues, (I think that could be debated) Obama just doesn’t have what it takes to pull it off. In fact him trying to wear that mantel just brings laughter, it’s like a joke.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Dennis,
    You and I think an awful lot alike, because those were pretty much my first thoughts. Had Teddy Roosevelt been President when Seal Team Six took out Osamma, Teddy would have been the one to do the double tap.
    And I guess that is more or less the reason I like Teddy Roosevelt so much. I’m not sure I like, or agree with all his policies, but the man had character. He knew how to lead. He didn’t mince words. And so as much as Obama might agree with Teddy on social issues, (I think that could be debated) Obama just doesn’t have what it takes to pull it off. In fact him trying to wear that mantel just brings laughter, it’s like a joke.

  • DonS

    Too bad Lloyd Bentsen has passed on. I can see him saying “Mr. President, I served with Teddy Roosevelt, I knew Teddy Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you’re no Teddy Roosevelt.” ;-)

    TR had a lot of progressive ideas. Which, in the main, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing 100 years ago. However, I think he would be rolling in his grave at what passes for “progressivism” today. We are choking in “progressivism”, and bankrupting ourselves as a result, while at the same time regulating and taxing good middle class jobs out of the country. The concept of balance is at issue — a century ago, that balance required the injection of progressive ideas — today, we need to balance things by restoring a sense of individualism, self-responsibility, liberty, and fiscal sanity.

  • DonS

    Too bad Lloyd Bentsen has passed on. I can see him saying “Mr. President, I served with Teddy Roosevelt, I knew Teddy Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you’re no Teddy Roosevelt.” ;-)

    TR had a lot of progressive ideas. Which, in the main, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing 100 years ago. However, I think he would be rolling in his grave at what passes for “progressivism” today. We are choking in “progressivism”, and bankrupting ourselves as a result, while at the same time regulating and taxing good middle class jobs out of the country. The concept of balance is at issue — a century ago, that balance required the injection of progressive ideas — today, we need to balance things by restoring a sense of individualism, self-responsibility, liberty, and fiscal sanity.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Thanks for the speech link, Tom. One should remember that there is a strong tendency to mythologize the past, and Roosevelt as remembered is not necessarily Roosevelt as he was. Biographers are the worst offenders.

    But Obama does seem to have thrown down some sort of gauntlet. A plan. How will the Republlicans respond? But both of them have another problem – no plan of any kind has a remote chance of making it past a super-self interested, in-the-pocket-of-lobbyists, careerist congress men and women.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Thanks for the speech link, Tom. One should remember that there is a strong tendency to mythologize the past, and Roosevelt as remembered is not necessarily Roosevelt as he was. Biographers are the worst offenders.

    But Obama does seem to have thrown down some sort of gauntlet. A plan. How will the Republlicans respond? But both of them have another problem – no plan of any kind has a remote chance of making it past a super-self interested, in-the-pocket-of-lobbyists, careerist congress men and women.

  • mikeb

    I recall during the campaign they told us Obama was the next Lincoln, and not just because he was from Illinois. Then they started comparing him to Reagan with soaring rhetoric. Stimulus? That’s Obama channeling FDR. Healthcare? Johnson’s Great Society 2.0. He’s young with a pretty wife and nice looking kids; it’s Kennedy Camelot all over again. Then they said he was like Jefferson then Truman. When is he going to be Obama?

  • mikeb

    I recall during the campaign they told us Obama was the next Lincoln, and not just because he was from Illinois. Then they started comparing him to Reagan with soaring rhetoric. Stimulus? That’s Obama channeling FDR. Healthcare? Johnson’s Great Society 2.0. He’s young with a pretty wife and nice looking kids; it’s Kennedy Camelot all over again. Then they said he was like Jefferson then Truman. When is he going to be Obama?

  • Jimmy Veith

    I watched the speech on C-Span. I think that everything he said rings true and his populist message will be a winning formula for success in 2012.

  • Jimmy Veith

    I watched the speech on C-Span. I think that everything he said rings true and his populist message will be a winning formula for success in 2012.

  • SKPeterson

    What the Republicans need is a good Grover Cleveland. Bring back the Bourbon Democrats and make mine a double.

  • SKPeterson

    What the Republicans need is a good Grover Cleveland. Bring back the Bourbon Democrats and make mine a double.

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