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Ron Radosh

Why Barack Obama Is not a Modern-Day Theodore Roosevelt!

December 7th, 2011 - 11:23 am

These words could have been used by Obama to distance himself from today’s OWS movement, instead of making it appear that he understood and welcomed their protest. I disagree with Soskis when he writes that he thinks Obama “seemed to endorse the Occupy movement’s concerns while distancing himself from its divisiveness.” Indeed, most observers see Obama’s speech as precisely the opposite — as a call to arms positioning Democrats on the far left of his own party’s mainstream.

To fully understand what TR was arguing, one must turn to the seminal work of history by Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916. Sklar, who is a scholar of the Progressive Era, writes the following:

Roosevelt … had not become a socialist, still less a radical or populist. It seems more accurate, and more illuminating of both the substance and thrust of his political thinking, to describe his position …by 1910-1912 as that of a left-wing statist who was prepared to achieve play a leadership role in achieving significant changes in the “form of government…and the nature of property rights. … Roosevelt himself put the matter succinctly in his Osawatomie speech in the summer of 1910, when he said that in standing for the “square deal,” he meant “not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed,” and he wanted the rules changed in the direction of effecting “a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”

Sklar goes on to explain that in TR’s eyes, his “New Nationalism” meant an alternative to a corporate capitalism less subject to public control, as well as “an alternative to socialism…to the elimination of private property in large-scale enterprise and its replacement by state ownership.” Sklar argues that TR favored a limited statism  confined to management of the economy and that TR did not favor “extending state power beyond that to the restriction of individual rights, political democracy, or civil liberties.” As he sees it, TR’s form of statism was “partial and libertarian, not totalistic and authoritarian.”

So, if we continue to look at and evaluate the Obama record and position today, it is precisely the opposite of what TR intended and believed in. Favoring equality of opportunity and reward for service are conservative positions; not those of today’s liberals or socialists. They favor equality of outcome, obtained in advance by forced redistribution of wealth by the state. As TR put it, he favored “the triumph of a real democracy…and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” He favored enlarging the possibilities for “equality of opportunity.” If that did not occur, then the possibility occurred of the kind of class war and revolution from below he sought to avoid.

TR, were he alive today, would be a strong opponent of OWS, and the anarchist and revolutionary youth who peddle its message in their actions across the nation. He disavowed what Sklar calls the “visionary, extreme and radical consequences” of the program favored by the socialist Left. As TR said, “We begrudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity.” He did not favor an attack on the so-called “greed” and profits of the wealthy, which he believed they had earned, and long as it worked for the benefit of the community as a whole.

With the kind of social programs favored by our president today, such as Obamacare, which would increase the cost of health insurance and assure lower quality medical care for all, the outcome would be precisely that which Theodore Roosevelt would be horrified with. Government’s object to  TR was “the welfare of the people,” not an increased statism which rather than help the people, worked to subject them to overwhelming government controls.

So when a liberal columnist like E.J. Dionne writes that TR would be furious at the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, which Dionne says “opened the way for corporations to spend vast sums in the political arena,” he is completely wrong. The decision was one that provided no government interference with civil liberties and the right of expression, and worked to benefit the AFL-CIO’s political action groups as much as that of any corporation. The words quoted by Dionne from Roosevelt do not translate directly to consideration of the decision reached by the Court on the contemporary case. Indeed, TR would be more than likely to praise the effect of the decision which gives labor the right to make its power and interests known, thereby balancing that of the corporations. TR, however, did firmly oppose using corporate funds for political purposes, as reader Michael DeLong notes on his comment on this posting.

What Roosevelt opposed were the “special interests” that fought only for their own power and not that of the people as a whole. And that term did not refer to Wall Street or the large corporations, whom he understood were a necessary and vital part of the nation’s fabric. An opponent of radicalism and populism, Theodore Roosevelt would have, I think, having heard Obama’s speech at Osawatomie, run up to the podium thundering: “This man has no right to be taking my name in vain, and doing it in particular at Osawatomie, where I went out of my way to distance myself from the radicals and socialists. And he calls himself a professor. I think my successor at the White House has a lot to learn.”

So let’s give TR the last word, when he talks about the poor:

When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit.

Why do I not think we will hear words like this from Barack Obama, or find this quote in the next column by E.J. Dionne?

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