I recently finished re-reading Edmund Morris’s superb second volume of his Theodore Roosevelt trilogy. Perhaps what struck me the most was the eerily similar challenges faced by T.R. and President Obama during their first two years in office. An economic system ruled by monopolies teetering on the brink of collapse, populist unrest among the American citizenry and unique and dangerous foreign policy challenges greeted both men when they first stepped foot in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, thus far, Obama has pursued the course chartered by the other President Roosevelt that liberals so hoped he would embody.
Swept into office by one of the most bombastic elections in recent history, Obama represented the great hope of the liberal elite--FDR reincarnate sent to craft a new social order policed by an expanded Washington. Although some Democrats remain disappointed by inevitable concessions Obama made throughout the legislative processes, one would be hard pressed not to concede that his initial footprint tracks a broadly expanded role for the federal government. A bloated stimulus package, financial and automaker bailouts, sweeping healthcare legislation, and financial regulatory reform all bear the signature of New Deal policies that have fueled Tea Party activism and made the once invincible golden boy of American politics appear, frankly, vulnerable.
But it didn’t have to be this way. Campaign Obama promised the American people “post partisan” politics that sought genuine consensus and an end to the party bickering in Washington. Perhaps he should have more closely studied the actions of the first President Roosevelt.
As Jay Cost theorized in his excellent piece yesterday, Obama’s glaring gaffe was initially approaching these initiatives from a liberal blueprint and moving to the center only when absolutely compulsory. Historic and meaningful legislation originates in the contrary fashion. Despite majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama should have first built from the center and then moved left as the situations merited. Doing so would have placated his base and alienated the Republicans by offering them at least an opportunity at input. It also wouldn’t have been a bad political strategy in that it would have demonstrated to moderates and Independents his intention to deliver on his campaign promise of post-partisanship.
Unlike Obama, T.R. (promising his now famous “Square Deal” for the American people) attempted face-to-face negotiations with J.P. Morgan and his Northern Securities Company. When Morgan wouldn’t cave, T.R. took him all the way to the Supreme Court, and won, earning him the nickname “the Trust buster.” When overseeing the negotiations of the anthracite coal labor strike that threatened the shutdown of nothing less than the whole of American commerce, T.R. summoned railroad executives and labor leaders for a series of face to face negotiations and famously told them to “work it out.” They did. Maligned by many (including some within his own party), T.R. sent an armed U.S. Navy to support a free and independent Panama against Columbian rule. Military action ultimately proved unnecessary, but historians credit T.R.’s willingness to use force with the successful revolution and, ultimately, the construction of the Panama Canal.
T.R. has fallen out of favor with modern conservatives lately, who now view him as too soft on business, too environmentally friendly (60 years before that term was even coined) and ultimately, a turncoat to the Republican Party when he sought a third term as president from his progressive platform.
To this point, the same criticism certainly cannot be leveled against President Obama, who has towed the Democratic line on virtually every one of his signature initiatives. Conservatives hope he keeps towing that line right out of the White House in two years.