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How Obama's Embrace Turned Teddy Roosevelt Into a Socialist | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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How Obama's Embrace Turned Teddy Roosevelt Into a Socialist

What was Fox News to do when Barack Obama went to Kansas and delivered a speech that echoed the “New Nationalism” address Teddy Roosevelt used to renew and redefine his political prospects? Obama’s oratory was not quite as radical as that of the former Republican president, but it was close enough is spirit and content to create concerns on the part of Fox commentators that the current president might be tapping into the rich vein of American progressive populism that actually moves the masses.

So the network of economic royalism did the only thing it could.

Fox broke away from Tuesday’s speech right at the point where Obama was most closely following TR’s line, with references to how the former president had declared: “Our country…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” And the recognition by Obama that “today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what [Roosevelt] fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women, insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.”

Obama had the quote right. And he had the history right.

What was Fox to do?

No problem. They dismissed Teddy Roosevelt as a socialist.

Once the details of Obama’s speech—one of the most effective and well-received of his presidency—were made available, Fox News political editor Chris Stirewelt explained: “What Teddy Roosevelt was calling for was a sort of a socialistic nationalism, in which the government would take things away from people who got things that he didn’t think they should have [and] give it to the working man. They talk about ‘the square deal,’ ‘fairness,’ all of these new mandates for government—something the Republican Party has walked away from in very decided fashion certainly since the Reagan era in terms of what the role and purpose of government is. This is Obama embracing a Republican icon of a bygone era.”

Fox host Megyn Kelly picked up on the theme: “Teddy Roosevelt was calling for something akin to a socialist nationalism. Why would President Obama want to do anything that would associate himself with that word ‘socialist’ which has been used against him by so many of the Republican presidential candidates, among others.”

Yes, Stirewelt responded, “I think the biggest thing [Obama] is trying to do is shame the Republicans. He’s trying to say: ‘Look, one of your own, a great hero of yours that’s on Mount Rushmore, he was a socialist. He called for this sort of socialist nationalism. Why are you people not being like him? Why are you not following in his footsteps?’ ”

“Obviously,” continued Stirewelt, “this is not an unalloyed good thing for the president to line up with this sort of progressivism, and this sort of liberalism and socialism that has become so much maligned and so much disliked in the modern American political discourse.”

On Fox Business News, the discussion turned to a claim that “we’re seeing the return of socialism combined with nationalsm.”

Wow.

So Roosevelt was socialistic, and Obama is adopting “socialist nationalism” by borrowing a page from the Republican commander-in-chief whom the most recent Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, hailed as his hero—as have Republican nominees in every election since the former president’s passing in 1920.

The notion that the Republican Roosevelt was a socialist would have come as news to the old Rough Rider—and to the socialist stalwarts of his time.

When Roosevelt ran for the presidency in 1904 (as a Republican incumbent) and again in 1912 (as the leader of the renegade Republicans who formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party), he faced determined opposition from Socialist Party nominees. Indeed, the 1912 campaign saw Eugene Victor Debs win the highest portion of the vote ever accorded to a Socialist candidate: 6 percent.

Roosevelt, in his “New Nationalism” speech at  Osawatomie, Kansas, did outline an agenda that supported the establishment of programs like Social Security and Medicare, protections against discrimination, union rights and expanded democracy. In effect, he was arguing for what, under his fifth cousin, Franklin, would come to be known as “the New Deal.”

Some of those proposals were promoted by the Socialist Party in the early years of the twentieth century, which certainly made arguments in its platforms for safety-net programs. But so, too, did moderate Republicans and Democrats. After the “Gilded Age” of robber barons and corporate monopolies, there was mainstream support for tempering the excesses of laissez faire capitalism. They weren’t proposing socialism in any form that Karl Marx might recognize but they were arguing for fairness and responsibility.

“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used,” Roosevelt said in 1910. However, recalling the language of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt added, “It is not even enough that it should have 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.”

That’s hardly a radical notion. It simply says that the accumulation of great wealth ought not come at the expense of society. Or, as Obama explained in Osawatomie, “Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes—especially for the wealthy—our economy will grow stronger. Sure, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else. And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty. It’s a simple theory—one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. It fits well on a bumper sticker. Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work. It’s never worked.”

This is not some grand redistributionist scheme. It is economic realism. It is the vision of responsible wealth that was broadly accepted by Main Street Republicans until the advocates for a new Gilded Age bought themselves a Tea Party movement.

Roosevelt spoke for Main Street when he said 111 years ago: “The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.”

Barack Obama is echoing that line, speaking a bit more softly and carrying a bit less of a big stick than Teddy Roosevelt. He is coming down on the side of the same basic premise that TR reached in Osawatomie: fairness.

Of course, according to Fox News, fairness is “something the Republican Party has walked away from…”

— John Nichols is the author of The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition: Socialism (Verso).
 

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