Building on a recent New York Times article, this weekend National Public Radio wondered if this is Obama’s ‘Roosevelt’ moment.” But the Roosevelt in question isn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President that many people hoped Obama would model himself when he first won the office. Instead, as Jodi Kantor reported in the Times, many of the historians who met with Obama during his first term felt that FDR’s cousin and predecessor Teddy was an ideal model for Obama.
Those historical conversations inspired Obama’s speech last year in Osawotomie, Kansas, the site of an inspirational and visionary Teddy Roosevelt address more than 100 years earlier. (We described the Obama and Roosevelt speeches here.)
Obama’s Osawotomie speech kicked off a populist theme which propelled the President’s re-election and his party’s resurgence in the Senate. Based on those results, the answer to NPR’s question about a “Roosevelt moment” would seem to be a pretty resounding ‘yes.’
The inevitable next question is; Will he seize this moment?
Tranformative or Transactional?
Kantor reports that it was the earlier Roosevelt who was on historians’ minds during a series of meetings they had with the President during his first term. “We pushed Teddy Roosevelt like crazy on him,” she quotes Douglas Brinkley of Rice University as saying.
Today’s frustrated progressives might be pleasantly surprised to learn that he told the historians he wanted to be a “transformative” and progressive leader. Instead this President has frequently been criticized for a leadership style that might be called “transactional” rather than transformative. Too often seemed to emphasized “getting things done”with the Republican Congress without articulating greater ideals or a transcendent visions.
But the historians told Kantor that the President quickly grew frustrated with this style of leadership, and that he asked them for lessons that might be drawn from his most transformative predecessors. It then that the group fixed on the Presidency of Theodor Roosevelt, who was the first great leader of the Progressive movement and pioneered many modern government ideals — some of which have been accomplished and some of which remain unfulfilled dreams.
Teddy Roosevelt, attempting a return to the Presidency in 1912, was the first Presidential candidate to articulate the vision for national healthcare which Obama took up in his first term. Roosevelt’s Progressive Party platform for that year proposed to protect Americans the “hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age.” Of the three, coverage for “sickness” remains most incomplete of Roosevelt’s goals. And Roosevelt’s platform proposed that it be provided through a program of “social insurance,” which in today’s parlance would be described as “Medicare For All.”
But that was the post-Presidential Teddy Roosevelt attempting a third-party return to office. What about Roosevelt the President? He’s widely credited for his masterful use of the Presidency as what he called the “bully pulpit” for preaching the virtues of an activist government.
Roosevelt was also a fierce opponent of Big Money’s influence on politics. “If our political institutions were perfect,” he said, “they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs.”
A Matter of Trust
Roosevelt fought the monopolies of his day by bringing antitrust actions against a number of the big corporations of his time, using the newly-enacted Sherman Antitrust Law.One of the corporations targeted was J. Pierpont Morgan’s Northern Securities Company. That’s the action for which Morgan famously offered to “send my man around to meet your man and sort it all out.” But that was exactly the kind of backroom dealing Roosevelt resisted.
That distinguished Teddy Roosevelt from the many modern politicians, at times including this President, who have devoted too much energy to mollifying and coddling Morgan successors like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase.
Roosevelt and Morgan had cordial interactions later on, but only after the President fought Morgan’s trust on behalf of the American people.That’s one of the great lessons of Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency: You can hope that Wall Street CEOs like you, or you can make sure that respect you. And unless you stand up to them, they certainly won’t respect you.
That includes law enforcement. Here’s what Teddy said in Osawotomie back in 1910: “I believe that the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.”
Roosevelt also sued John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the big tobacco companies. All in all he sued 44 major corporations, or ‘trusts,’ as they were called then.
Breaking Up Isn’t Hard to Do
Roosevelt understood that monopolistic corporations represent a threat to the public’s safety. He might be horrified today at an economy held hostage to the increasing dominance of a few giant banks. He would presumably be horrified by a financial system in which one bank controls forty-four percent of the derivatives market, and five banks control 96 percent.
His horror would be compounded if he knew that all five banks had pleaded guilty to massive fraud – not once, but over and over – without a single prosecution.
One of Obama’s goals for the “bully pulpit” must be to explain that to the American people – including some members of his own party. When asked to support a bill breaking up the big banks, Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed horror and said “This is still America, isn’t it?”
The President must explain that yes, it is still America – the America of Theodor “Teddy” Roosevelt, not John Pierpont Morgan.
Teddy Roosevelt didn’t try to eliminate corporations. Instead he created balance between their operations and the public good. It was Roosevelt who created the Department of Corporations and the Department of Labor and Commerce. He understood that a capitalist economy can’t function without regulation.
That doesn’t mean he was a shouter or a bully, two qualities that are incompatible with the current President’s style. He was unfailingly courteous to executives and others, according to reports. But then, it was Teddy Roosevelt who said “Talk softly and carry a big stick.”
Roosevelt also understood that a well-paid, organized workforce was vital to the nation’s economic health. When the United Mine Workers went on strike in 1902, Roosevelt created an investigative commission that resolved the strike with an agreement that raised miners’ wages and limited their work hours.
Teddy Roosevelt may be best remembered today for his dedication to the environment, and for his successful efforts to save many of this country’s natural resources for future generations. With the planet itself literally endangered, that may be the most critical lesson of his Presidency: protect the planet for the sake of the future. To do any less would be immoral. As he himself said, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”
Teddy was also a pretty good communicator – much better, in fact, than a lot of today’s highly-paid political consultants. Obama turned around his candidacy, and arguably his Presidency, by assuming Teddy’s rhetorical mantle on that day last year in Kansas. His new populist themes led to a resurgence in his own poll numbers, and drove both himself and his party to victory.
Roosevelt also lamented the “timid souls who will never know victory or defeat.” He believed in trying to achieve your goal, however great the risk of failure.
He might have been inspired by the story of Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Senator-elect who is one of his heirs today. Her upset Senate win in “red state” North Dakota would have made the old Rough Rider proud. Heitkamp hit her opponent hard for his positions on rural health care, Medicare, domestic violence, and aid for farmers.
All of these issues were close to Teddy’s heart, a heart which would have been warmed by the campaign commercial in which Heitkamp hits balls in a batting cage with surprisingly good form (for a politician). Roosevelt placed great emphasis on sports and personal fitness.
The Heitkamp story was repeated across the country this year, as candidates won with themes that were progressive, populist – and yes, themes that were based on “class war.” That led to victory for candidates like Heitkamp, Raul Ruiz, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren … and Barack Obama.
The Race For History
Historian Robert Caro noted that, with the end of Obama’s his final campaign, “He has only one thing to run for: a place in history.” National Public Radio asks whether the “fiscal cliff” negotiation is his “Roosevelt moment.” It can be – if he uses it to communicate before he compromises, if he articulates a progressive for the vision, and if he fights for it with passion, fairness, and equanimity.
President Obama has a unique gift for communicating the role Federal institutions play in a just society. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “”The object of government is the welfare of the people.” Obama’s “Roosevelt moment” is the time to unleash that gift and reinforce the social contract that held our society together for 75 years.
This is the moment in which the President will decide whether his Presidency is remembered as transactional or transformative. If Barack Obama wants to be a transformative President , if that’s who he is and how he wants to be remembered, then his “Roosevelt moment” will also be his “Obama moment.”