Ed Driscoll

Fin de Siècle in the White House

As Thomas Sowell writes in “The ‘Progressive’ Legacy,” “Obama’s ‘new’ vision is borrowed from an earlier age:”

Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States, but his doctrine is by no means unique. He follows in the footsteps of other presidents with a similar vision, the vision at the heart of the Progressive movement that flourished 100 years ago.

Many of the trends, problems, and disasters of our time are a legacy of that era. We can only imagine how many future generations will be paying the price — and not just in money — for the bright ideas and clever rhetoric of our current administration.

The two giants of the Progressive era — Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — clashed a century ago, in the three-way election of 1912. With the Republican vote split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt’s newly created Progressive party, Woodrow Wilson was elected president, so that the Democrats’ version of Progressivism became dominant for eight years.

What Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had in common — and what attracts some of today’s Republicans and Democrats, respectively, who claim to be following in their footsteps — was a vision of an expanded role of the federal government in the economy and a reduced role for the Constitution of the United States.

Like other Progressives, Theodore Roosevelt was a critic and foe of big business. In this he was not inhibited by any knowledge of economics, and his own business ventures lost money.


“In this he was not inhibited by any knowledge of economics” — what a marvelous turn of phrase. And as Sowell concludes regarding another president with a lacuna of economic common sense, “Barack Obama’s rhetoric of ‘change’ is in fact a restoration of discredited ideas that originated 100 years ago.”

Think of it as “Barack to the Future.”

Of course, Wilson and both Roosevelt had the advantage of getting there first, and expanding a then-small government. Today, after a century of unending bloat, the left is now a series of competing special interest groups, often working at cross-purposes with each other, all vying, hat-in-hand for their president’s attention and the taxpayers’ money. Just as the Keystone pipeline pitted unions (who’d like more jobs) against radical environmentalists (who in the Rousseauian heart of hearts would like to see all industrial production everywhere end, as long as they can keep NPR and their local Starbucks), as the Anchoress writes,  “Obama Has Stranded the Catholic Left:”

But Obama’s move on Friday wasn’t about nuance; it was about destroying the surprising unity of the “Catholic Right” and the “Catholic Left” on this issue; it was about dividing and conquering. In a deeply cynical move, Obama used Sister Carol Keehan to foment that division; he needed her credibility to reassure the Catholic Left that it could prefer unity with his administration over unity with the church.

His punch was off. Possibly he hadn’t anticipated a block to guard the possession of rights, which are not his to dole out as he sees fit. He seems not to realize, even now–as his administration muddies up the story with talk of costs and savings–that his Catholic allies’ rejection of his HHS Mandate wasn’t about contraception or sterilization, nor could their approval be regained with a skillful uppercut to the men in the miters. What the HHS Mandate has revealed is that the preservation of the freedom of religion–of the churches rights to be who and what they are and to exercise their missions–is worth going to the mat for, no matter which corner you’re coming from.



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