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  • President Obama's New Model: Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism Speech

    Yesterday, Barack Obama became the second President to use a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, as an opportunity to take on the mantle of a previous President.

    President Obama evoked the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, who gave his famous “New Nationalism” speech laced with the now-rote themes in political rhetoric: “special interests,” the necessity of regulating corporations, and the clear distinction between human rights and property rights. Roosevelt was also playing presidential dress-up: he invoked the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to justify transforming America from its founding principles, in particular the Declaration of Independence.

    Obama’s Kansas speech has been getting a lot of media coverage. But, to understand the significance of Obama’s speech, we need to understand what he is imitating: Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech.

    While extending his presidential rhetoric of a “square deal,” Roosevelt provided a foundation for his 1912 campaign for a third term as President, against both his Republican rival and former Secretary of War William Howard Taft, whom he believed betrayed his Progressive legacy, and the successful Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. The old Rough Rider’s campaign would change American politics in tone and tactics, with primary challenges to a sitting President and aggressive campaigning before crowds. The incumbent Taft, who stood for the principles of limited constitutional government, would finish a distant third.

    As do other Progressives, Roosevelt argued that a new world without economic class differences requires major constitutional change. Roosevelt sees human history as a Darwinian struggle between “the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.” The essence of the struggle, then, “is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.”

    Roosevelt insisted he opposed “wild-eyed” change. Like Lincoln, he endorsed equality of opportunity. But unlike Lincoln, he took the “new birth of freedom” to mean “the destruction of special privilege”—a call for class conflict. Roosevelt misleadingly equated his struggle against “special interests” with Lincoln’s struggle against slavery and for self-government under the Constitution.

    The radical change from the Founders and Lincoln is clear: In the name of “national efficiency,” Roosevelt called for “real democracy” in which society’s needs become the measure of individual rights. “We should permit [fortunes] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” Such an admittedly dramatic “increase in government control is now necessary.” He proposed a “Federal Bureau of Corporations” and graduated or progressive income and inheritance taxes on “big fortunes.” Meanwhile, the federal and state Departments of Agriculture should “extend their work to cover all phases of farm life.”

    But the regulation of the national economy requires control over private life as well. To fulfill government’s purpose of serving the welfare of the people, Roosevelt demanded “a genuine and permanent moral awakening.” The federal government, he said, must even mold the family and education to guarantee Progressive results. The “New Nationalism” stands not only for a strong military and global presence but also nationalization of life generally.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    8 Responses to President Obama's New Model: Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism Speech

    1. Bobbie says:

      MR. President admires those politicians he mentions only to be political. He omits to acknowledge they were individuals also. He puts down this country to spin every achievement of an individual into government social guidance? or damage to employment when all advancements created new industries, new jobs and new services and more government revenue? The President ignores to respect that America's guidance is the peoples' freedom and self governance under common law. America's strength, is the PEOPLE!

    2. TRscholar says:

      I urge everyone to go and read the actual transcript of T.R.'s original "The New Nationalism" and make up your own mind.

      After you've read it, consider this:

      1. Throughout his 1910 speech in Kansas, T.R. emphasized "equality of opportunity", and never once mentioned "equality of outcome". Sadly, I think a lot of people tend to confuse opportunity and outcome.

      2. T.R. clearly emphasizes in his speech that he respected "honestly earned" wealth, be it for the capitalist or the laborer. He never once incited an "us vs. them" rhetoric, and clearly states that he wants and desires every individual to reach their full potential, and that government should work toward making access to such opportunities more level for all. That is not a socialist nor communist tenet. That is an American tradition.

      3. Throughout his whole life, in countless speeches and letters, T.R. repeatedly warned against inciting class warfare. You cannot have a "square deal" if you distinguish between and favor one "class" of people over others. President Obama seems to continually distinguish between the "have's and the have-not's". T.R. always advocated the strenuous life, admired "the doer of deeds" and disdained "the critics", and never thought that the honestly successful achieved their success at the expense of all others. But T.R. did disdain the dishonestly successful who achieved their success purely through special privilege, special interests, outright corruption, and/or undue (and perhaps illegal) political influence.

      3. In T.R.'s day, corporations were becoming stronger than the government, and some even felt themselves to be above the law, and thus acted as if they were superior to government. This implies that, since the government derives its power from the people, then corporations began to act as if they were stronger than and superior to the people. That is a dangerous precept that ultimately could lead to a loss of sovereignty for the people. T.R. fully understood that and sought to protect the interests of the people over that of corporations. That is not socialism. That is common American sense.

      4. In his speech, T.R. clearly states he does NOT advocate over-centralization, that he DOES oppose perpetual welfare for people who refuse to help themselves, and emphasizes the importance of character as the cornerstone of our country's national welfare.

      5. T.R. was a man of his time and era, not of today and this era; his words need to be put into their own historical context, and not pulled apart piecemeal by politicians, journalists, and pundits looking to inflame the current rhetoric even further. Taking T.R. and his words out of their historical context sullies his memory, debases our common history, and inflames already hyper-partisan passions.

      Read for yourself.
      Think for yourself.
      Otherwise, you are deluding yourself.

    3. Lloyd Scallan says:

      Yes TR, I did read Teddy's speech and have "made up my own mind". T.R. was the for-runner of the modern socialist movement. I have also "made up my own mind" that Obama is the culmination of that effort and belief. From before the election of 2008, it was clear as crystal that Obama is exactly what he and the leftist media hid from the voters. That Obama is a socialist/Marxist that was invented to complete what T.R. started. To drive this free nation into the pit of total government control of every aspect of our lives. Simply, Communism.

    4. TimAZ says:

      All one needs to know about T.R. is that he wanted a govt. as big and oppressive as Mao-Bama is building to date. Another important note T.R. is directly responsible for the institution of term limits for POTUS. The bill was passed and signed into law two days after his death. That act of congress and the senate speak volumes to the destruction one POTUS can deliver upon the American citizenry. Lloyd Scallan is correct in his assessment of T.R. and Mao-Bama. America has been attacked in this manner several times before and has rebounded each time. It appears that this time the ism's have advanced much farther then at anytime in American history so we will see if we "the American people" can restore our country to it's original glory as the flames are licking at the U.S. Constitution. Had enough yet?

    5. Common Sense says:

      Teddy as the "Common Sense" president…plain and simple. He has historically been regarded as such by both polical parties. What now? Are the right-wing political junkies going to begin a Teddy bash? There wasn't one thing mentioned in his 1910 speech that should threaten anyone of any political leaning. It was 100% American values and good old-fashioned American common sense. Right now, we need more of it.
      As was stated earlier, this op-ed isn't hitting on anything close to all cylinders. As was suggested earlier….Read TR's speech and if you can't see these inaccuracies…….you're truly lost, caught up in the partisan crap, and not worth hearing from.

    6. Stirling says:

      It's really amazing, when will the "Real" Obama please stand up? He seems to want to be everyone but his True self. Prior to the 2008 election he was so vague with "Hope and change" that nobody really knew him except to be the perverbial "Everyman." The problem with trying to be everything to everyone is in the end it ultimattely fails, which is why this predsident will be one and done in 2012.

    7. James Rutherford MD says:

      Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or any subject, always has a “central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea" in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men. — Abraham Lincoln 1856

      At the time of a clash of civilizations it is not unusual for both sides to re-examine, define, and even sometimes codify their basic values and cultural institutions in order to both preserve and convey their basic values and traditions. At the time of the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the United States did this poorly. It appears that we are making a similar mistake in our war against terrorism, which is very much a battle of ideas and ideologies and will have to be understood as such for any chance of a long-term resolution and reconciliation. We are missing a defining opportunity in the history of the moral and political philosophy of the liberal tradition; first, by not defining our primary moral value as equality, understood as a respect for the dignity and worth of our common humanity; and second, by not defining our government as a constitutional democracy, which is the only way to convey both the substantive and the procedural concepts of equality that it incorporates.

      Read my blog at ThinkingAbout2012.com for more on constitutional democracy and equality.

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