Commentary Magazine


Why Obama Can’t Play Teddy Roosevelt

Last week, liberal author and Obama supporter Doris Kearns Goodwin told “Meet the Press” that the president ought to stop playing the post-partisan and emulate Theodore Roosevelt by initiating a re-election effort aimed at rekindling the 26th president’s appeal for a “Square Deal.” Kearns Goodwin hoped Obama might capture the fervor of TR’s unsuccessful Bull Moose Party campaign for president in 1912 during which he called for more fairness in the economic system of the time and railed against untrammeled corporate greed. And, as Ben Smith notes in Politico, it appears the White House is taking her advice by going to Osawatomie, Kansas, to deliver remarks on the economy which will seek to identify Obama’s views with those of the hero of San Juan Hill.

The superficial link between Roosevelt’s version of progressivism and contemporary liberalism was enough to send Glenn Beck off the deep end last year, but it appears the famous historian Kearns Goodwin and Obama himself seem to agree with the conservative talker. But they are all equally off the mark. Comparisons between TR’s attempt to introduce some notion of fairness into a financial system that had none at the time and in which even the most minimal government regulation of market excesses was controversial simply cannot be compared to Obama’s desire to expand the size and reach of government to an extent Roosevelt never dreamed of.

Like most historical analogies, the effort to compare the cool Obama to the Rough Rider is a contrivance driven more by the desire of Democrats to seize any popular theme to save a failing presidency than a reasonable comparison of the two men’s ideas. Roosevelt’s career and interests were so varied that it is possible to interpret his career in a number of different contexts. He was a soldier and a believer in a vision of America as a burgeoning great power as well as an environmentalist, a progressive as well as devout believer in individualism and the genius of the American entrepreneur and the free market in which he excelled. To focus on one aspect to the exclusion of the others is to create a distorted image neither he nor his contemporaries would have recognized. That is why the recent focus on TR’s progressive period by both elements of the right and the left doesn’t shed much light on either the politics of his time or our own.

To call for restraints on Wall Street greed in 1907 or 1912 at a time when there was no federal income tax or much of a government regulatory scheme is a very different thing from doing so today. The role of the federal government in the market as well as its powers are simply not comparable to those of a century ago. For all of our worries today about the economy and the plight of the poor, they are not to be compared to the situation then–when there was no safety net of any kind for the impoverished as TR thought there should be. One may trace the beginnings of American liberalism to the progressives of that era and Roosevelt’s desire for justice for all Americans, but it is just as silly to appropriate TR as an icon for the Democrats next year as it would be for the GOP to use him. Roosevelt hated J.P. Morgan, but as a firm believer in capitalism it isn’t likely he would find much to like in the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street with which Obama sympathizes. Nor, I might add, would he have been likely to have much use for Barack Obama’s disdain for American exceptionalism. As biographer Kearns Goodwin should know, TR was no socialist. He distanced himself from the progressives after 1912 for the very reason that he saw their evolving political movement diverging from his own principles.

Obama and TR are polar opposites in just about every aspect of their characters and presidencies. Obama hasn’t the personality or the political convictions to credibly play Harry Truman to recreate the Democrats’ victory of 1948, and the idea that he can channel the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt is ridiculous.