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.
In 1910, Roosevelt set out to define a more comprehensive progressive philosophy, and found it in Herbert Croly’s book. “The material progress and prosperity of a nation are desirable chiefly so far as they lead to the moral and material welfare of all good citizens,” Roosevelt observed in his Osawatomie speech, the initial draft of which was written by Croly. Progress and welfare require not only the centralization of government but also the nationalization of politics — a break from the American tradition of localism. The federal government should now play an interventionist role to advance progressive democracy, for “if we do not have the right kind of law and the right kind of administration of the law, we cannot go forward as a nation.”
In his own Osawatomie speech, President Obama donned TR’s progressive mantle. He alluded to “an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried — no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out.” But this “basic bargain” has become so eroded by the marketplace that the “defining issue of our time” is “to restore growth and prosperity, restore balance, restore fairness.”
The choice we face, as Obama frames it, is the same offered by progressives 100 years ago: between the harshness of market capitalism (defined in true straw-man fashion as “you’re-on-your-own economics” with “a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can”) and the fairness of progressive nationalism (the view that “we are greater together — when everyone engages in fair play, and everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share”).
The word “fair” recurs in various forms throughout the speech, with reminders along the way that things have to be made fair — and that means ever more government authority, programs, and regulation. “As a nation,” Obama said, “we’ve always come together, through our government.” And so Obama returned to his mantra of more federal education programs, more infrastructure spending, and more economic regulations. And, of course, raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for these “investments” would only be fair.
Obama denies the charge of class warfare, and, as class warfare is conventionally understood, he is correct. What he is actually doing is abandoning the average, middle-class voter and his middle-class values and cobbling together an alliance of state dependents, government hangers-on, and political elites who claim the capacity to run things. Obama’s program is fundamentally about the rise of a new governing class that insists on enforcing political and economic “fairness” rather than letting us govern ourselves. The managed quest for fairness inevitably leads to bureaucratic favoritism, inequalities based on special interests, and undue political influence.
At some point in every presidential campaign, there is a speech that defines the candidate and provides the rationale for his policies in light of the larger meaning of the country. By turning to TR’s New Nationalism model, Obama has revealed once and for all that the intellectual antecedent of his administration is the progressive theory of governance. He is calling his party back to its most radical roots. His objective as president is to complete the progressive transformation of America, and define its next phase as assuring not equal opportunity, but “fair” outcomes, by redistributing wealth and benefits through an ever more complicated and extensive government that regulates more and more of the economy and society.
As the national government becomes ever more centralized and bureaucratic, acting without constitutional limits, it also becomes more undemocratic, and more potentially despotic, than ever. The result is that a government designed to secure the right to the pursuit of happiness and to break down unjust barriers to opportunity now penalizes success, restricts opportunity, and has become the chief barrier to the achievement of the American Dream.
The 2012 election will be a referendum on the governing philosophy of this nation. Let us hope that voters understand the stakes.
— Matthew Spalding is vice president for American studies at the Heritage Foundation. This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2011, issue of National Review.