New Nationalism, Old Liberalism


It is strange that Pres. Barack Obama has chosen to channel the spirit of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, the president he least resembles. Teddy Roosevelt was a rough-riding, safari-loving, war-adoring imperialist (ask the Panamanians), the man who sent the “Great White Fleet” on a round-the-world tour to make it clear to American rivals hither and yon that they had better mind their own business or face the wrath of a budding world power. Barack Obama was an undistinguished law professor and legislative back-bencher who once gave a very good speech. Roosevelt wrote 18 books on subjects ranging from naval warfare to naturalism, and not one soft-focus psychological self-examination about his tender feelings about his estranged father. Like President Obama, President Roosevelt was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike President Obama, he earned it, having successfully negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

Not exactly mirror images.

And yet Barack Obama, the great indoorsman and man of inaction, whose only instinct when faced with a national crisis is to deliver yet another speech, has trundled himself down to Osawatomie, Kan., where TR, by that point an ex-president, made his famous “New Nationalism” address, to try to get a little of that Bull Moose magic to rub off on himself. Color us skeptical, but we can see why TR’s New Nationalism might appeal to Barack Obama: It was an early instantiation of what our National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg has called, after H. G. Wells, “liberal fascism,” the central-planning, top-down, intrusively managerial approach to national government that has been the Left’s model for generations.

Let us briefly revisit the original scene: President Roosevelt came to Kansas, at the time a hotbed of radicalism, for a celebration of John Brown, whose cause — the abolition of slavery — was just, and whose means — massacres, terrorism, freelance warfare — were abominable. Lawlessness in the name of the good: a pretty fair description of liberalism operating at full steam, whether in the imaginative ad hoc judicial rewriting of the Constitution or the unauthorized overturning of U.S. bankruptcy law during the GM bailout fiasco. Whatever else he was, John Brown was a man of action, as terrorists by definition are, so he was admired by the action-worshipping President Roosevelt. Against that background, the president laid out an agenda of his own, one that was predicated not upon slaughtering his political opponents but upon taxing and regulating them into submission. Some of what he called for was good and proper: the enfranchisement of women, for instance.  The two most notable of his demands, the creation of a redistributive, graduated income tax and the creation of a Bismarck-inspired social-insurance program, are the defining features of most Americans’ interactions with the federal government during our time. He also pledged “to destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” Perhaps President Obama can get one of the Goldman Sachs veterans on his team to put that into context.

President Obama’s speech, like President Roosevelt’s, was economically illiterate. Like TR, he juxtaposed the tycoons and the middle class, and committed the classic blunder of conflating the success of the former with the difficulties of the latter. The Democrat carried into office on a wave of Wall Street money called for a crackdown on Wall Street shenanigans even as he packs his administration with Wall Street veterans, while the Washington establishment’s perverse relations with Wall Street, and, especially, with the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mighty contributors to the housing bubble, go unchallenged. It’s only greed when somebody else is making the money.


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