It was good to see President Obama link his Osawatomie Speech to Kansas history. Some commentators said Mr. Obama was "channeling Roosevelts." Especially, Theodore. It delighted some that Mr. Obama donned the mantle of the Republican Roosevelt.
Obama quoted from TR's 1910 speech at Osawatomie. It was Roosevelt's first great public break with the man he put in the White House, William Howard Taft. Mr. Obama used his Osawatomie speech to break with his own past appeals to post-partisanship. He put behind him his campaign rhetoric of Hope and Change to craft a sharp political message, one targeted at his Republican adversaries.
Theodore Roosevelt came back from a year-long safari in Africa in 1910. His military aide, Maj. Archie Butt, noticed a change in TR. "He is bigger, broader, capable of greater good or great evil, I don't know which." Major Butt would not live to see it: He died heroically on the Titanic in 1912. TR's Osawatomie Speech marked a sharp ideological left turn for the beloved Rough Rider. He would move from that point to a tragic bid for a third term. To admirers of TR, that was a fatal error.
Mr. Obama is not larger, broader than he was in 2008. He is sadly diminished. But his Osawatomie Speech may prove as unfortunate for him as TR's was. He used his speech to draw a bright line between himself and those whom TR might have called "malefactors of great wealth." The problem is: It doesn't wash.
While denouncing greedy corporate types, Obama occupies Wall Street with his motorcade, seeking campaign contributions. While carping about the unfairness of capitalism, he embraces Jon Corzine. Corzine went from Wall Street to the Senate, and from the New Jersey State House to the corporate suite of the now defunct MF Global. Mr. Corzine says, stunningly, he doesn't know where all that money went. Perhaps he was too busy bundling for the president's re-election to keep track. Let's channel TR on that one: Malefactor of great wealth, indeed.
As rich as Mr. Obama's magical history tour was, he forgot the Rail Splitter. Prior to his election, Barack Obama sought to emulate Abraham Lincoln. His inaugural route from Illinois traced Lincoln's from 1861.
Ironically, Kansas figured prominently in bringing Abraham Lincoln out of retirement and back into politics in the 1850s. Before the Republicans were known as Republicans, they rallied in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That law, the original "pro-choice" legislation, would have allowed the people of the territories to vote on whether to have slavery or not. The white people.
Lincoln opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His economic views were clear. Free land and free men were required for the survival of a free republic. Lincoln recognized always the "right to rise." He told a New Haven, Connecticut audience in 1860:
I am not ashamed to confess that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat boat -- just what might happen to any poor man's son! I want every man to have the chance -- and I believe the black man is entitled to it -- in which he can better his condition.... That is the true system.