Okay, okay, I get it. President Obama went to Osawatomie, Kansas (population 4500), on December 6, to give a speech to channel a populist speech given by Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) in the same town in 1910. But why did Roosevelt go to Osawatomie (population 4050) and, more broadly, can Obama successfully channel Roosevelt?
Roosevelt was invited to visit Osawatomie to give a speech for a specific occasion, namely, the dedication of John Brown Memorial (State) Park. The land had been accepted as a gift by the state from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Fifty-four years earlier, in 1856, John Brown had made Osawatomie, the residence of some relatives, his anti-slavery base. It was “Bloody Kansas.” In May of that year, Brown attacked pro-slavery forces, killing five, near Lane, Kansas. In August, he and about 30 others unsuccessfully and bloodlessly defended Osawatomie from a pro-slavery force of some 250 who burned all of three buildings of the town of fewer than 800.
In the ensuing years, Osawatomie was, in 1859, the site of the first convention of the Kansas Republican Party. From 1879 through 1985, it served as a “division point” for the Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. (A division point consists of freight and passenger stations, storage facilities for trains, and places of origin for crews.)
In 1906, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Osawatomie, Charles W. Fairbanks, then Vice President under President Roosevelt, came to Osawatomie and addressed a crowd of 20,000. For the occasion of dedicating the memorial park, however, a town booster decided in March, 1910, that Roosevelt himself, now a former president, who had announced he would be touring the West in the late summer, should be invited. The governor of Kansas was persuaded to issue the invitation.
In early April, the Kansas governor telegrammed Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who was waiting at an Italian port for Roosevelt, to speak to Roosevelt in favor of the invitation. Pinchot was there to intercept Roosevelt, who was traveling to Europe after an African safari, to discuss President Taft’s firing of him. After Roosevelt and Pinchot spoke, Roosevelt accepted the invitation immediately without knowing the topics upon which he might speak since, at the time, Roosevelt was studying his political options.
By the time Roosevelt arrived in Osawatomie five months later, on August 31, he had decided to enunciate a detailed program that he hoped would unite the Republican Party, be adopted by the Republican Party, would bring the Party to victory in the 1910 congressional elections, and would cause the American people to view him as the heart and soul of the Republican Party — in time for the 1912 presidential election.
At Osawatomie, addressing an enthusiastic crowd of 30,000 for 90 minutes from the top of a sturdy kitchen table, Roosevelt proclaimed what he called in the speech a “New Nationalism” in which he asserted the priority of labor over capital, of human welfare over property rights, of equality of opportunity, of accountability of corporate officers and directors, of revision of the financial system to avoid financial panics. (The full text of Roosevelt’s address is here.) His detailed program became the platform upon which he eventually ran for re-election as president. It called for, among other things — and I insert the dates upon which there was success at the federal level:
• Women’s suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920).
• The direct election of senators (17th Amendment, 1913).
• Primary elections (to avoid local and state political machines and bring new blood into the Party; even for elections to federal office, this is a matter of state law; by 1920, most states had adopted this method for elections to the U.S. House).
• Limits on campaign contributions (the 1910 Federal Corrupt Practices Act had placed limits on House general elections and required disclosure concerning party funding; it was amended in August 1911 to require disclosure concerning candidates and placed limits on all federal primary elections and Senate general elections);
• Registration of lobbyists (the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 and the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946).
• A safety net for the elderly and disabled (1918 funding for disabled war veterans; 1935 Social Security Act);.
• An 8-hour workday (adopted by Ford Motor Company in 1914 and many private companies followed; the 1916 Adamson Act applied to railroad workers).
• Regulation of securities (the Securities Act of 1933; the Panic of 1907 had occurred during Roosevelt’s term in office and many blamed him for it; in 1908 Republicans in Congress passed the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, and Roosevelt signed it the same day, establishing the National Monetary Commission, which recommended the Federal Reserve Act of 1913).
• Inheritance tax (Spanish-American war tax was repealed in 1902; it was reinstated in Revenue Act of 1916).
• A constitutional amendment allowing a (graduated) federal income tax (16th Amendment, 1913).
As one can readily see, much of the platform was eventually enacted. But that’s in hindsight. In the elections of 1910 and 1912, Roosevelt failed… utterly:
• In the 1910 congressional elections, the Republicans maintained control of the Senate, but lost 56 seats in the House and the House. Joe Cannon (1836-1926), who had been a member of the House since 1873 (except for 1891-93) and had been its Speaker since 1903, lost his speakership. (Cannon would lose his House seat in 1912 but regain it; his last term of office ended in 1923.)
• In the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt, who had torn the Republican Party asunder, ran on the Progressive Party (a/k/a Bull Moose Party) ticket. He won six states, including his native New York’s 38 and running mate’s native California’s 11 electoral votes, overshadowing Republican Taft’s two states and eight electoral votes, but losing in Woodrow Wilson’s sweep of 40 states and 435 electoral votes. Yes, Roosevelt even lost Kansas.
• Turning to President Obama: The President addressed 700 in a high school gymnasium for one hour. (The full text of Obama’s is here.) One preliminary observation: Roosevelt mentioned John Brown twice, Obama not at all. Roosevelt celebrated Lincoln and the victory won by many (ages 65 and older) there present. Roosevelt referenced the spirit of the Grand Army (i.e., the Union Army) numerous times.
In his speech, Obama espoused the benefits of: post-secondary education, research and development, infrastructure jobs, domestic manufacturing, tax reform, and tax increases on high-income individuals. He congratulated himself on the already enacted health reforms (Obamacare) and bank and financial reforms (Dodd-Frank). Considering the content of Obama’s speech, it is difficult to understand why he traveled to Osawatomie to say nothing more than what he has said over the past three years. And, considering Roosevelt’s utter failure to unite his Party and win re-election, Obama certainly did not mean to channel Roosevelt in that respect.
In trying to channel Roosevelt with a talk in Osawatomie, Obama raises the question of whether he can adequately channel Roosevelt in other respects. I address this question in a way that does not depend on whether you agree or disagree with Roosevelt’s “progressivist” positions, or with Obama’s positions, or whether you agree or disagree with their philosophy of government or their rhetoric. Knowing what we know of Roosevelt generally and of his presidency in particular, Obama simply cannot channel, cannot imitate, Roosevelt.
First, to the very core of his being, Roosevelt was opposed to corruption, to machine politics, to the inefficient use of taxpayer dollars (“waste”). Go back to his time as an avowed reformer elected in 1881 at age 23 to the New York State Assembly, becoming Minority Leader just two years later, serving on the U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, 1889-1895, returning to New York to serve as president of the board of the Police Commission of New York City, 1895-97. While in this last post, for example, he made unannounced inspections of police officers on their beats.
Obama, on the other hand, rather than disdaining machine politics came out of the Democratic machine politics of Chicago. His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, came from Chicago and has returned to Chicago as its mayor. Obama’s second chief of staff, William Daley, is a brother of the former mayor. Consider whether Obama is in favor of efficient federal regulations: Obama’s order to federal agencies to review regulations did not occur until January, 2011, two full years into his term. Consider federal tax dollars: just one word: Solyndra.
Energy and Leadership
Second, Roosevelt was a hands-on leader bursting with energy. It was his energy and leadership that garnered the deep and abiding respect of Dakota ranchers and the Rough Riders. As president, he exercised this energy and leadership consistently. Let me provide just five examples:
• In 1902, miners in Pennsylvania went on strike. In the first federal intervention of a labor dispute, Roosevelt set up a fact-finding commission which caused the miners to suspend their strike. The strike did not resume because the miners obtained more money for fewer hours while the owners obtained higher prices for coal.
• Roosevelt worked with his Secretary of State John Hay (who had been Lincoln’s twentysomething personal secretary) in negotiating and obtaining the Senate ratification of a 1903 treaty with Great Britain to create a joint commission to resolve the boundary between Alaska and Canada, a dispute that originated in 1821 between Great Britain and Russia and had lingered since then, including during the 36 years since the 1867 acquisition of Alaska by the United States. Think of this commission as a kind of supercommittee, but instead of six Republicans and six Democrats, it consisted of three Americans and three Britons. Surely there would be deadlock, but instead the Americans came away in October of the same year with a resolution favorable to the United States.
• In late 1905, Roosevelt mediated the end of a war between Russia and Japan — for which he obtained the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Nobel Prize in any subject awarded to an American. (I am sorry that I reminded you that Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for — doing nothing.) Just a few months later, Roosevelt mediated a dispute between Germany and France over Morocco.
• You may disagree with Roosevelt’s conservation policies and how he used his presidential powers to identify various lands as federally protected, but for three days in May, 1908, he convened a conference on conservation at the White House attended by 360 people: 45 state and territorial governors; commissioners of Indian affairs; his entire Cabinet (except for two traveling); the full Supreme Court; a large number of Senators and Representatives; representatives from 68 professional societies such as forestry, mining, scenic and historical preservation, farming, lumber; 21 reporters; and experts in such fields as geography, entomology, biology, and soil. (Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (2001).) By contrast, on February 25, 2010, Obama convened a one-day Health Care Summit at Blair House. He invited about three dozen people, all of them government officials and politicians: the congressional leadership of the Senate and House, the chair and ranking member of the relevant committees, eight additional members of Congress, and some Executive Branch personnel. Senator John McCain, his opponent in the 2008 election, was one of those who attended and you may recall that the President snippily told him, “The election is over, John.”
There is no need to detail here what others have recounted about how President Obama was absent on the debates this past spring and summer on the deficit reduction (including being fully silent on the recommendations of his own presidentially appointed commission) and budget (the country has been without a budget because of inaction by the Senate Democrats for two fiscal years). Obama’s one-time golf date on June 18, 2011, with Speaker Boehner, in which they did not achieve resolution, was not channeling Roosevelt. Obama has not met with Republicans for over five months.
No, folks, President Obama is totally incapable of channeling the capable Theodore Roosevelt.