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Jedediah Purdy

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Two Speeches, Two Lefts: Barack Obama and Teddy Roosevelt

Posted: 12/07/11 08:27 AM ET

Yesterday, Barack Obama sounded a little like Theodore Roosevelt: scourge of wealthy special interests, champion of a middle class society, defender of government's necessary role in the economy. So it was a fine stroke to deliver the president's most populist speech yet in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Roosevelt went in 1910 to lay out his reform program, which the Bull Moose presidential candidate called "the square deal."

It was more than a stunt. Obama's speech was a creditable successor to Roosevelt's. He detailed and denounced the soaring inequality that helped spur the Occupy movement, defended higher taxes for the rich and strong safety nets for the middle class, and called for stronger regulation and more public investment in science and infrastructure. His refrain was that a good country offers a decent life to anyone willing and able to work. All of that is certified Roosevelt.

But there were big differences, and they show a lot about how far the country has moved from the middle class, strong-government idea that Roosevelt helped found and Ronald Reagan -- one of Obama's rhetorical models -- did so much to disassemble.

Roosevelt put citizenship -- civic and political engagement -- at the heart of the good life he wanted for Americans. He argued for security and equality because no one could be a good citizen without them, and because the country owed this much to those who contributed to it. For him, public spirit was the highest motivation, and selfishness was never legitimate: he warned that "ruin in its worst form is inevitable" with "the triumph both in politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism." He roared that earning a dollar was legitimate only when the profit-making also served the public interest.

There is almost none of this in Obama's speech. His touchstone is a fair shot at a middle class life, for its own sake more than for the national community's. Even education, that most civic of public investments, is just about economic opportunity. This may give some hint of why Obama doesn't seem to know what to do with the movement he inspired four years ago, other than try to reconstitute it for the next election.

It's also the temper of the time. Nearly everyone thinks economic success is admirable, and far fewer think that about politics. Obama has deferred to this prejudice throughout his presidency by favoring personal aloofness over calling his supporters into political action. By following that strategy, this speech cuts off one leg of Roosevelt's paired political and economic vision.

Roosevelt's speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama's. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active "struggle" against unfair inequality: "to take from some ... class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth ... which has not been earned by service to ... their fellows." He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed -- plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama's speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt's was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

Much of this difference was because Roosevelt had strong movements to his left. While he pointed out that he had been called a socialist and a communist for his proposals -- an observation that Obama coyly repeated, implicitly referring to himself while naming Roosevelt -- the earlier president could also point to socialist newspapers in Kansas that denounced him as a reactionary tool of Wall Street. Two years later, the state gave more than seven percent of its presidential votes to the Socialist Eugene Debs. Two years earlier, six times that many had supported the barn-burning prairie populist, William Jennings Bryan. Despite the changed conversation that the small Occupy movement has helped inspire, Obama's centrism has far less muscle and energy to its left flank than Roosevelt's did. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt, eminently a centrist reformer of capitalism, sounds like a socialist today because he had to take account of vital socialist and populist strands in public life.

Roosevelt called explicitly for much more regulation of corporations, and economic life in general, than the country had known before. For one thing, he wanted to keep corporations out of politics entirely. The Supreme Court has pretty much closed this door to Obama in a series of decisions protecting political spending as First Amendment speech, and he has apparently decided that running against the Court is bad politics.

But more basically, Roosevelt believed that regulation was a necessary response to a changed economy. An agricultural frontier society had become a continental industrial economy, and innovations like labor law, antitrust, public-health regulation, and conservation had to follow. Without regulation, concentrated wealth would translate into political power, the system would be corrupted, and the ideal of equal opportunity for all would be lost.

In other words, Roosevelt had a theory of what the new economy was all about, how it undermined core American values, and how government had to change to restore those. He feared that, if he failed, the country would go further to the left than he thought wise. We, too, live in a changed economy -- in our case global capitalism -- that is threatening equal opportunity and the indispensable belief that we're all in this together. But we don't have a theory about how that economy works or how government can effectively correct it, and for the moment all the alternatives come from the right, which is more interested in tearing down twentieth-century regulation than designing government for the twenty-first.

Barack Obama's Osawatomie speech is a symptom of this situation. If the problems can be solved, it will take political engagement of a kind we don't have yet, and which the president has encouraged ambivalently, at best. It will take more and better politics to produce another Teddy Roosevelt. It wouldn't hurt if President Obama's salutary interest in economic fairness inspired him to talk even more like the old Republican he evidently admires.