The String-Pullers
From the Dec. 31, 2011, issue of NR

Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, Kan., August 31, 1910


Barack Obama initially ran for president invoking Abraham Lincoln, then looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt and even appealed to Ronald Reagan. He began campaigning for reelection as Harry Truman running against a “do nothing” Congress. But now, at long last, he has revealed that his heart truly lies with the old Bull Moose progressive, Theodore Roosevelt. 

In a pilgrimage to the small town of Osawatomie, Kan., President Obama has given the defining address of his administration. Osawatomie is where Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 delivered his famous speech calling for a “New Nationalism” and launching his campaign for a third presidential term, which ultimately led him to bolt from the Republicans and run as the Progressive-party candidate. 

Osawatomie was Roosevelt at his most progressive, and so it was for Mr. Obama. If there was any doubt before, it is now clear that the president has given up on the center of American politics and doubled down on his governing model. And this tells us everything about where he is coming from and where he wants to go. 

Throughout history and today in many parts of the world, political rule is the privilege of the strongest and the most powerful. America is exceptional because it is dedicated to the principle of universal human liberty: that all are fundamentally equal by nature and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This principle and the constitutional framework of law that enlivens it are the foundation of the American Dream. 

The related principle that each has a right to the rewards of his own labor makes possible a dynamic social order in which every member of society can work hard and advance based on individual talent and ability. The primary obligation of government is to secure property rights, break down artificial barriers to opportunity, and uphold the rule of law. 

This is sound economic theory. When property is protected, there is an incentive to earn, save, and invest in opportunities for the future. When guaranteed to reap what they sow, more people will sow and reap. When economic reward is available to all, and the protection of property extends to all, the amount of wealth throughout society increases exponentially. A basic safety net formed by civil society and public assistance at the appropriate level of government can then protect those who are unable to care for themselves. What is truly revolutionary about the United States is that the ladder of opportunity became available to everyone. As a result, poverty has been vastly diminished. Even more important, it is no longer a permanent condition from which there is no real possibility of escape. 

But about a hundred years ago, there arose a different dream: that government could engineer a better society, rather than simply leaving the people free to create one. Progressive reformers were convinced not only that the American founders were wrong in their assumptions about man and about the necessity of limited government, but also that advances in science would allow government to reshape society and eradicate the inequalities of property and wealth that had been unleashed by individual rights, democratic capitalism, and the resulting growth of commerce and business. A more activist government, built on evolving rights and a “living” Constitution, would redistribute wealth and level out differences in society through progressive taxation, economic regulations, and extensive social-welfare programs, all centrally administered by expert bureaucrats. 

The clearest formulation of this nationalizing and socializing aspect of progressive thought is found in an influential book by Herbert Croly called The Promise of American Life (1909). Croly allows that Americans are entitled to an “almost religious faith” in their country, but quickly cuts to the problem: “The traditional American confidence in individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth.” The time has come to reject the ghosts of the Founding and devote ourselves to “a dominant and constructive national purpose” centered on a new theory of the state, in which experts administer government and regulate the economy to achieve progressive outcomes. By becoming “responsible for the subordination of the individual to that purpose,” Croly writes, “the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.” 

Despite his image as a “trust buster,” Theodore Roosevelt preferred not to dismantle large corporations, but rather to control and regulate them in the public interest. “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions,” he proclaimed in 1901, “and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” That meant centralizing control of the economy and expanding the power of the national government. Increasingly progressive after his election to a full term in 1904, Roosevelt declared war against “predatory wealth,” argued that administrative commissions should recommend regulatory measures to Congress, and — by the end of his second term — was calling for a graduated income and inheritance tax.