He’s been Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan; today, President Obama travels to Osawatomie, Kansas, to unveil his latest persona: Teddy Roosevelt, who delivered his “New Nationalism” manifesto in the town’s John Brown Cemetery in August 1910.
Obama would do well to be cautious in inviting comparison to the popular image of the “Rough Rider.” The president whom Matt Drudge delights to picture on his vacation bicycle, safety helmet in place and a Dukakis-in-the-tank grin on his face, does not compare favorably as an action hero to the man who fought at San Juan Hill.
But where economic policy is concerned, Obama and the “New Nationalist” Roosevelt are not so far apart. At Osawatomie, the former president lamented the “absence of effective state” in America and advocated a policy of paternalist “control” of the nation’s commerce. President Obama, too, wants more “effective state” in America. The difference is that in 1910 government spending amounted to about 8 percent percent of GDP. A century later it comes to around 40 percent. The country today has too much state, not too little.
H. L. Mencken’s analysis of Teddy as a Big State Man is worth pondering. The “America that Roosevelt dreamed of,” Mencken wrote
was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within. . . . He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of the Napoleonic or Ludendorffian pattern—a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights.
There is more than a whiff of President Obama in this, for he too is a Big State Man. And as such he is out of step with the time. A century after Roosevelt called for more government control at Osawatomie, the dead hand of Big Statism is destroying the economies of the West and bankrupting the treasuries. Yet President Obama and his party stubbornly resist policies to restore a more reasonable balance between state power and private enterprise.
The remedy for pernicious concentrations of power is free competition. That was true in 1910, although Roosevelt didn’t realize it; what the country needed then was not state control of commerce but an effective anti-monopoly law. (Although the Sherman Act had been on the books since 1890, anti-trust law was in its infancy.) Today, too much power is concentrated in Washington and on Wall Street, and the two concentrations reinforce one another. Wall Street helps fund the campaigns of politicians in both parties, and in exchange the politicians give Wall Street regulation that insulates the biggest banks from competition by subsidizing their failures. The remedy here, too, is not more state control, but more competition and more free, unsubsidized enterprise.