Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Teddy Roosevelt’s speech was plainly authoritarian. He said that he had no grievance against wealth, but that “we should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” (As determined by . . . ?) President Obama’s speech was less so, not because he is any less committed a central-planner (see the health-care bill) or less a romantic about the restorative powers of the central government (see practically every speech he’s ever given), but simply because he is not at the moment disposed to making very specific policy proposals, having had his fingers burned in the past. To the extent that he is making specific proposals, they are confused and contradictory: He criticized tax cuts and then argued for extending tax cuts. He criticized loopholes and tax shelters and proposed creating new ones.

#ad#Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism was only new at the time: Today, it is familiar as stale, old, statist liberalism, redolent of the glory days of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. TR had the excuse that his oddball mix of nationalism and central planning had not yet been shown by history to be destructive and unworkable. President Obama, at this late hour, has no such excuse.

Not that such a philosophical question would interest him. Rather than furthering a program of concrete reforms, the president’s speech was an exercise in theme-building for his upcoming election campaign. That theme apparently is to be inequality. But though it is an economic reality, Americans are not suffering mainly from inequality. They are suffering from unemployment, and suffering worse than the official data communicates: If the millions of Americans who have dropped out of the job market in despair since the election of Barack Obama had not given up hope entirely, the unemployment rate today would be topping 11 percent. It is unemployment that is at the root of the foreclosure crisis — the long-term jobless cannot pay their mortgages — and unemployment that is at the heart of our overall economic weakness. It contributes to the deficit by reducing tax collections and tamps down growth by undermining confidence. President Obama would rather talk about anything than unemployment, and, in Kansas, he indicated that his campaign strategy is to do just that. Americans should not allow themselves to be distracted from the real, fundamental, measurable economic problem before us by the president’s oratory, which is by design disconnected from these unpleasant realities.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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