Obama, Roosevelt, and New Nationalism

As we look at President Obama’s New Nationalism speech, delivered today at Osawatomie, KS, while cloaking himself in Theodore Roosevelt’s mantle, it’s useful to review Roosevelt’s own New Nationalism speech, which was so seminal for the Progressive movement.  I’ll skip over the boilerplate rah-rah that both speeches have and stay with some highlights.

By way of background, this is what Roosevelt and Herb Croly, one of the most articulate Progressives, had to say, presaging Roosevelt’s 1910 speech.

In his 1904 address to Congress, Roosevelt said:

The Government must in increasing degree supervise and regulate the workings of the railways engaged in interstate commerce…

In his 1908 address to Congress, just two years before his New Nationalism speech, he repeated the theme:

The proposal to make the National Government supreme over, and therefore to give it complete control over, the railroads and other instruments of interstate commerce is merely a proposal to carry out to the letter one of the prime purposes, if not the prime purpose, for which the Constitution was founded.

Here is what Croly had to say about government and Americans’ role in it in 1909.

To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy.  But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of constructive national democracy….  [T]he average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.

One connection between this from Croly, and Roosevelt (and by extension, Obama) is that Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” phrase was borrowed directly from Croly’s The Promise of American Life, the source of the quote above, and from Croly’s own adulation of Roosevelt as the proper sort of democrat:

The new Federalism or rather new Nationalism is not in any way inimical to democracy.  On the contrary, not only does Mr. Roosevelt believe himself to be an unimpeachable democrat in theory, but he has given his fellow-countrymen a useful example of the way in which a college-bred and a well-to-do man can become by somewhat forcible means a good practical democrat. The whole tendency of his programme is to give a democratic meaning and purpose….

Roosevelt then opened his New Nationalism speech with all the right words.

Our country—this great Republic—means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.

But then he threw it all into a cocked hat.  He spent the next several years trying to utterly remake our economy and to place the Federal government firmly in charge of it and of the decisions that the economic players—free Americans—were supposed to be making for themselves.  And he spent the rest of his speech trying, at once, to disguise the coming effort and to justify it.  For instance [emphasis added]:

I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.

Thus, government, not Americans, must decide the basis of “equality.”  It’s not possible, though, to have equal opportunity and equal outcomes.  Mandating equality of results necessarily deprives each man equality of opportunity because it deprives each man his right to achieve his own fullest potential.


It has become entirely clear that we must have government supervision of the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations, including, particularly, railways, but of all corporations doing an interstate business.


We have come to recognize that franchises should never be granted except for a limited time, and never without proper provision for compensation to the public. It is my personal belief that the same kind and degree of control and supervision which should be exercised over public-service corporations should be extended also to combinations which control necessaries of life, such as meat, oil, or coal, or which deal in them on an important scale.


The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed. The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.

These constitute Roosevelt’s demand for big government determining what Americans might do with their market decisions and their businesses.

Roosevelt continues:

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.  …every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.

Thus, Roosevelt insists that big government must be the final arbiter of what Americans might do with their own property and wealth.


Let us admit also the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good.

Roosevelt’s big government even demands the final say over what Americans might do with their most fundamental property—their own bodies and minds.  Because, repeating Croly:

[T]he average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities….

So it is, and has been, with President Obama. Here is what Obama said on the site of that seminal Progressive speech.  He, too, opened with the right phrases:

[His grandparents] believed in an America where hard work paid off, responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried — no matter who you were, where you came from, or how you started out.

These values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known.

Then, like Roosevelt before him on this spot, he threw it all into a cocked hat.  Like Roosevelt, Obama has spent these last three years trying to utterly remake our economy and to place the Federal government firmly in charge of it and of the decisions that the economic players—free Americans—are supposed to be making for ourselves.  Like Roosevelt, he spent the rest of his speech trying, at once, to disguise the effort and to justify it.

We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or sometimes even understand them…. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.

So we need more regulators and more regulations.  And folks should bear no responsibility of their own for buying mortgages they couldn’t afford or understand.  Big government will take care of them.


…a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs, homes, and the basic security of millions—innocent, hard-working Americans who had met their responsibilities, but were still left holding the bag.

Never mind that that basic security had already been nationalized by big government in the form of wealth redistributive taxes to pay for a national social security system that was on the verge of bankruptcy before the present crisis, a national health care system that was on the verge of bankruptcy before the present crisis, a big government that already was increasingly deep into debt and in these last three years three times deeper.  Yes, innocent, hard-working Americans are, indeed, left holding the bag.


At the turn of the last century…we had to decide: would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were controlled by a few giant monopolies….

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed.

Indeed, he did.  As we saw above, Roosevelt believed that big government should be the monopolist.  Because big government knows better.  Because Progressives Know Better.


Remember that in those years…we had weak regulation and little oversight….

Aside from the misstatement of the facts, this is just a Rooseveltian plea for even bigger government.  For example:

We need to up our game. And we need to remember that we can only do that together.

It starts by making education a national mission—government and businesses….


We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges, so they can learn to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.


And by the way—if we don’t have an economy built on bubbles and financial speculation, our best and brightest won’t all gravitate towards careers in banking and finance.


But as a nation, we have always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions….


…last year we put in place new rules of the road that refocus the financial sector


There are also limits on the size of banks and new abilities for regulators to dismantle a firm that goes under. The new law bans banks from making risky bets with their customers’ deposits, and takes away big bonuses and paydays from failed CEOs, while giving shareholders a say on executive salaries.


For the first time in history, the reform we passed puts in place a consumer watchdog who is charged with protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders, payday lenders or debt collectors.


Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes these penalties count—so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.

The push for more government involvement, bigger government is breathtaking in its scope.  The Progressive government of Obama must be the final arbiter of what Americans and our businesses will be allowed to do.  Obama’s Progressive government looks for the elimination of the judiciary from its role (vis., bankruptcy court) in favor of Executive Branch fiat—just as Roosevelt before him.   Obama’s Progressive government demands a “watchdog” that is not at all accountable to Americans, or to our representatives in the Federal government, our Congress; a “watchdog” that’s accountable only to itself and to the President.

Obama’s Progressive government isn’t interested in enforcing existing law and having existing regulators do their jobs, as Judge Jed Rakoff has forcefully suggested.  This would not expand government.

The parallels are plain.  Roosevelt wanted to control the railroad industry from his Executive office, pre-empting the Judiciary, and to tell the other industries what they might do.  Obama wants to control the financial and health services industries from his Executive office, pre-empting the Judiciary, and to tell the other industries what they might do.

Both men demand(ed) the following.  Government, rather than Americans, must decide what is “fair.”  Government, rather than Americans, must decide what market decisions Americans will make.  Government, rather than Americans, must decide how Americans’ wealth must be (re)distributed.

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