Barack Obama rightly compares himself to Teddy Roosevelt
Barack Obama’s receiving some positive press for his populist sounding speech yesterday in which he harks back to the “progressive” achievements of Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century.
Theodore Roosevelt disagreed (with those supporting inequality). He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today: that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, open, and honest. And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for customers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children, or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe. And today, they still can’t.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here, to Osawatomie, and laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. “Our country,” he said, “…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.
After doing essentially nothing up to now for the struggling majority and even offering cuts in social security and medicare, Obama’s now attempting to position himself as a fighting progressive. There’s absolutely no basis in believing his stripes have changed though, and his actual proposals in the speech are the same regurgitations of his past inadequate and largely wrong-headed ideas.
My main point for this post is that Obama’s connection with Teddy Roosevelt is actually quite deep, not because Obama, like Roosevelt, is a progressive, but rather because Roosevelt, like Obama, was a conservative. Roosevelt positioned himself as a force of progress against big business and Obama is doing the same. But rather than actually instigate progressive change, both presidents were / are conservative defenders of the status quo.
We need to keep the real nature of Teddy Roosevelt in mind as Obama attempts to wear his mantle. Gabriel Kolko wrote an excellent history of this period back in 1963, entitled “The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916”. In it, he claims the period between 1900 and World War I wasn’t progressive but rather an era of conservatism attributable to the conscious decisions of specific men and institutions. In virtually every case, he notes, leaders chose solutions advocated by big business and financial interests, the result being a conservative triumph and a preservation of basic capitalist social and economic relations.
The first decade of the 20th century saw a continuation of the intense competition of the late 19th century and leading businessmen felt that only the federal government could rationalize the economy. “It wasn’t the existence of monopoly that led to government regulation but its lack. The crucial factor in regulation was the bulwark that conservative regulation provided against state regulation. National progressivism became the defense of business against the democratic ferment in the state “. “The reality of the period was one of big business control of politics set in the context of political regulation of the economy.”
This period is well worth remembering as it’s so similar to our own. The Progressive Era, per Kolko, was characterized by a paucity of alternatives to the status quo, a vacuum that “permitted Political Capitalism to shape the politics and determine the ground rules for US civilization in the 20th century”. “The principle of utilizing the federal government to stabilize the economy became the basis of Political Capitalism in its many later ramifications.” Kolko warns us that the myth of Roosevelt as a progressive is false as he was a pro big business, anti-labor defender of the status quo who saw the masses as dangerous. He considered himself a conservative trying to avoid revolutionary chaos by bringing the industrial structure under reasonable control. Meat inspection regulations, for example, were instituted at the request of the meat packing industry itself. Similarly, Roosevelt was supported by the lumber industry in promoting sustainable yield cutting. He opposed the preservationists.
Obama, defender of “competition”, orthodox finance, Wall Street, the priority of the private sector, modest regulatory changes, minor increases in high end taxes, and an aggressive foreign policy, is quite close to Roosevelt and it’s fully appropriate he draws a comparison. Like Roosevelt, Obama is a status quo politician attempting to hold up a decayed system. Roosevelt was followed by world war, a decade of speculative bubbles, depression, and another world war. Sadly, there’s not much evidence we’ve learned much since then. Obama is right in comparing himself to Roosevelt and for that deserves our condemnation.