This morning Barack Obama channeled one of American history's truly transformative figures by visiting the tiny Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt gave his "New Nationalism" speech over a century ago. It was refreshing to see the President invoke his predecessor, who was a powerful and fearless agent of change both inside and outside the White House.
For the first time the President directly confronted the injustice of our growing economic divide, which were caused by the ongoing rapacity of the already-wealthy. He promised to take real action against the bankers who accepted our help after ruining the economy, then went on hoarding the nation's wealth for themselves at everyone else's expense.
Teddy would have been proud.
But echoing the populist chords of the First Progressive Era isn't without its risks. The speech that Roosevelt gave in Osawatomie, Kansas in 1910 should serve as a beacon for the President and his fellow Democrats. It also warned future leaders that there is a price to paid for promises betrayed.
If Roosevelt's ghost had been hovering over the lectern today, no doubt it would have appreciated being remembered. But the apparition might also have repeated the words Roosevelt spoke on the same platform in 1910:
"It is of little use for us to pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which ... enabled the men of that day to meet those crises."
President Roosevelt fought relentlessly against the powerful financial interests of his time, who dominated the nation in pretty much the same way they dominate ours today. J. Pierpont Morgan famously offered to "send my man around to meet your man and sort it all out," but President Roosevelt didn't want to cut deals with powerful banking interests. He wanted to make them less powerful, and he got it done.
Four years after leaving office, Roosevelt was running for President again. People back then suggested that his ideas were too extreme: A minimum wage. Women's right to vote. Direct election of Senators. An eight-hour workday. But they all came true.
Now that's change you can believe in. And here's what Teddy Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that day.
Corrupt bankers must be prosecuted
More than one thousand bank executives were prosecuted after the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980's under Republican President Ronald Reagan. This week's 60 Minutes report presented overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior at the major banks. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission provided a wealth of evidence suggested criminal acts, as did the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. I analyzed information about leading executives at my former employer, AIG, that also seemed to suggest blatant illegal activity.
Yet, up to now, not one senior executive at a major financial institution has been prosecuted. There is no excuse for the Obama Administration's failure to prosecute anyone.
Teddy Roosevelt told the citizens of Osawatomie that "I believe that the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law."
Personally responsible, the man said.
Meanwhile the Obama Justice Department sits idly by as the SEC continues to let major corporations pay slap-on-the-wrist fines for executive criminality - fines that are often paid by the same shareholders they deceived - while "neither admitting nor denying wrongdoing."
The Wall Street Casino
"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned," said Roosevelt. "Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered-not gambling in stocks, but service rendered."
Today the financial sector is once again earning nearly 40 percent of the nation's corporate profits, and much of that income is earned by gambling in ways Roosevelt and his contemporaries couldn't have imagined.
As for "services rendered," there's not much of that going on. Lending remains at low levels, despite all the low-interest loans and other money-generating perks the banks have been given.
The Revolving Door
"One of the fundamental necessities in a representative government such as ours," said Roosevelt, "is to make certain that the men to whom the people delegate their power shall serve the people by whom they are elected, and not the special interests."
The Obama Administration, like the Bush and Clinton Administrations before it, has seen a revolving door between Wall Street and its economic officials. Larry Summers, Bill Daley, and others made millions on Wall Street before serving this White House.
Peter Orszag went directly from the President's service to a high-paying and vaguely designed position with Citigroup, a corrupt and inept mega-bank that wouldn't even existed had it not been for the ministrations of Clinton officials like Summers and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Rubin went on to make more than 100 million dollars as an executive with the monolith he helped create, which then became the largest recipient of public largesse.
Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that "every national officer, elected or appointed, should be forbidden to perform any service or receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, from interstate corporations."
"They're people, my friend!" That's what Mitt Romney told an audience member who asked him about the novel and warped idea of "corporate personhood" that's stripping real people of their ability to assert their rights against corporate interests.
"Corporate personhood"? Here's what TR had to say:
"We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare, chiefly because certain advocates of the rights of property as against the rights of men have been pushing their claims too far."
Roosevelt also said this in Osawatomie:
"The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare ..."
Roosevelt told his Kansas audience that "The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree ..."
The United States already suffers from more unequal distribution of wealth than Egypt. The rich continue to amass more and more wealth, while the middle class loses ground and the ranks of the impoverished swell. It will take a combination of smart regulation, corporate transparency, and more progressive taxation to reverse that trend.
Roosevelt continued: "I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective-a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes ... increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."
Corporate Corruption of the Political Process
Roosevelt's words ring stronger than ever in this post-Citizens United world, where corporate contributions are unlimited. "If our political institutions were perfect," he said, "they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs."
Regarding disclosure of campaign contributions, he said that "it is particularly important that all moneys received or expended for campaign purposes should be publicly accounted for, not only after election, but before election as well."
A Final Warning
"A broken promise is bad enough in private life," Roosevelt told his Kansas audience. "It is worse in the field of politics."
As we said, it's encouraging to see the President channeling the old Rough Rider in Kansas. It was good to see him taking the rhetorical fight to corporate interests and arguing for extending unemployment insurance. In the past he's also said the right things, if not always forcefully, about corporate election reform and taxing the wealthy. If he want to "throw down the gauntlet" with this speech, as an aide suggested, than he and his team should remember that gauntlet-throwing is what people do when they're prepared to fight. It's not a good move if they're not.
Populism isn't a rhetorical pose. It's a mode of action. And nobody's a better example of the politics of action than Teddy Roosevelt, who once led the "Rough Riders" into battle. If Barack Obama's finally willing to ride some rough country in pursuit of the higher good, a lot of Americans will ride with him.
But he's disappointed his followers before: by promising to defend Social Security, then repeatedly offering to cut its benefits; by campaigning against taxing costlier health plans, then actively pushing to include that tax in his bill; and with other reversals from campaign pledges. If the President hasn't committed himself to following his words with forceful and unambiguous action, he should remember what Theodore Roosevelt said on that winter day in 1910:
"No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election."
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