Theodore Roosevelt built his landmark August 1910 “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, Kan., around two pillars. President Obama reached for only one when he celebrated the speech in his own visit there on Tuesday. The omission was as telling as the embrace.
The portion of Roosevelt’s legacy that Obama clasped is the speech’s best-remembered element: TR’s insistence that the federal government must do more to check the power of concentrated wealth. Roosevelt had come to Osawatomie on a campaign tour for reform Republican candidates, and his address marked a decisive break from the conservative GOP old guard with whom he had uneasily coexisted as president.
Roosevelt’s speeches that year were infused with his fear of a society fractured by widening class divisions—and a political system that did more to deepen than to bridge them. He worried that rising class conflict could combust into revolution, and he argued that vigorous national reform was the best way to douse the embers.
That conviction rippled through his Osawatomie speech and others during that period. “The true friend of property, the true conservative,” TR declared in Kansas, “is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.” Toward that end, Roosevelt urged tougher regulation of railroads, a progressive income tax, and a steep inheritance tax.
Two years later, in his independent presidential campaign of 1912, he advanced a visionary agenda of minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws, government-backed pensions, and abolition of child labor. Linking all his proposals was Roosevelt’s unshakable belief in concerted public action as the counterweight to concentrated private power. “When aggregated wealth demands what it is unfair,” he wrote in a September 1910 magazine article expanding on the Osawatomie speech, “its immense power can be met only by the still-greater power of the people as a whole, exerted in the only way it can be exerted, through the government.”
Obama’s speech, unlike Roosevelt’s, won’t be studied a century later; it drifted too much from a rousing statement of principles to a laundry-listing State of the Union. But the president did forcefully update Roosevelt’s argument that government must actively police the marketplace and promote opportunity for average Americans. Obama decried widening inequality and eroding social mobility in language that the Democratic base has longed to hear from him; urged greater public investment in education and innovation; and sharpened his contrast with Republicans who see cuts in spending, taxes, and regulation as the key to national revival. “As a nation,” Obama insisted, “we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed.”
Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech had a second major theme, though, that was much less prominent in Obama’s remarks. Throughout his speaking tour that year, TR insisted that national unity was an essential precondition to progress. In Osawatomie, Roosevelt offered a rousing call for mutual concession and shared sacrifice to confront the nation’s many challenges. “I … ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism,” he memorably declared that day. “We are all Americans. Our common interests are as broad as the continent.”
Obama quoted that line late in his speech, but as an afterthought. Obama’s tone was more confrontational toward both the GOP and the wealthy; he sounded less like Theodore Roosevelt and more like Franklin Roosevelt railing against “economic royalists” in 1936. That’s deeply ironic, of course, because as a senator and a presidential candidate, Obama made the case for national reconciliation as eloquently as TR ever did. But as president, Obama’s commitment to that cause has been more intermittent and qualified.
On the one hand, he has worked diligently to reach consensus with groups outside of the traditional Democratic coalition, such as automakers on fuel-economy standards, and doctors and drugmakers on health care. In 2009, Obama allowed Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to idle the health care effort for three months while he negotiated with the panel’s Republicans (ultimately unsuccessfully). And in last summer’s budget negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, the president showed that he would reform entitlement programs that many Democrats consider inviolate.
But during Obama’s first two years, much of his program ultimately passed through Congress on party-line votes; his inclination may have been toward compromise, but his agenda wasn’t always conducive to it. And like TR himself, Obama deferred to an effective, but intensely partisan, congressional leadership.
Obama hardly deserves all (or even most) of the blame for the hyperpartisanship hobbling the capital. He is facing an implacably ideological Republican Party. And the major forces polarizing our politics long predate him: Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hoped to bridge the nation’s differences, but each left with Washington more divided than when he arrived. Obama seems likely to share that fate, whenever he departs. As our national politics succumbs to unstinting partisan confrontation, we are drifting at mounting cost ever further from Theodore Roosevelt’s majestic vision of a nation inspired to collective action by its common aspirations.
This article appears in the Dec. 10, 2011, edition of National Journal.