Ready for Teddy

    Barack Obama continues his march through the pantheon of past presidents. Lately, he has channeled Give-‘Em-Hell Harry Truman (who won re-election by inveighing against an obstructionist Republican Congress), and he has invoked Ronald Reagan (who frequently raised taxes, and believed that tax money should be used to repair roads and bridges). Now he’s moving on to Teddy Roosevelt.By channeling TR in a speech today – in a Kansas town where TR delivered a famously muscular attack on the special interests and income inequality – President Obama seeks to demonstrate that the contemporary Republican party is a plutocratic toady to the special interests and thus is radically out of sync with one of its own greatest luminaries.And Obama is clearly seeking to draw parallels between 2011 and 1910 (when Roosevelt, two years out of office, delivered his speech). Income inequality was a serious issue then, as now. The rich and the corporations were amassing great wealth at the expense of the commonweal then, as now. The free-market champions were resisting government oversight then, as now. But rather than quote from Obama’s speech today, let’s harken back to the Roosevelt address and see the parallels for ourselves.They didn’t do soundbites in 1910 – heck, Roosevelt could easily spend half a minute on a single windy sentence – but some of his lines remain pungent and prescient nonetheless:”At many stages in the advance of humanity, (the) conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle 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.”And this:”(O)ur government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.”And this:”The absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.”And some money quotes:”This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary….The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted…I do not ask for over-centralization; but I do ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism where we work for what concerns our people as a whole.”And this warning, which is just as apt today:”Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few, and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.”  By referencing this speech today, Obama is contending that he and TR share the same mainstream centrist sentiments, that TR’s GOP contemporaries have lurched to the right and left him behind. For instance, Republicans on Capitol Hill refuse to hike taxes on the rich in order to finance a new payroll tax cut for the average citizen. The new Republican presidential front-runner, Newt Gingrich, insists that child labor laws are “very stupid” (whereas TR in his speech called for “laws to regulate child labor”). And the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, much to the delight of the corporate community, issued an historic ’10 ruling that unleashed corporate money in politics (whereas TR said that “laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes”).But the big question, of course, is whether Obama can score politically by aligning himself with a face on Mt. Rushmore. He’s right to contend that the current GOP has betrayed TR. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a winning electoral argument. Despite the GOP’s serial out-of-the-mainstream proclivities, Obama remains saddled with tepid re-election poll numbers. The economy is still the prime albatross, and that gives Republicans an ongoing opportunity to define Obama as an incumbent who promised and failed to make things better.Indeed, this passage also appears in Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech:”A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics. No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election; and, if he makes such a pledge and does not keep it, hunt him out of public life.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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