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.