Newt Gingrich isn't the only political blowhard invoking Teddy Roosevelt these days. Today the Oval Officer in Chief went to Osawatomie, Kansas, site of T.R.'s famous "New Nationalism" speech, to declare this political season the "make or break moment for the middle class." From the president's speech as prepared:
You see, this isn't the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world's industrial giant, we had to decide: would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citizens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because some people thought massive inequality and exploitation was just the price of progress.
Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today: that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It's led to a prosperity and standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, open, and honest. And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for customers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn't profit by exploiting children, or selling food or medicine that wasn't safe. And today, they still can't.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here, to Osawatomie, and laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. "Our country," he said, "...means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."
For this, Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.
Whole speech, which is rich with frustrating content, here.
Some other New Nationalism items that President Obama left out:
* A call for using the state to "destroy privilege."
* "[G]overnment supervision of the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations...but of all corporations doing an interstate business."
* Also, "the same kind and degree of control and supervision which should be exercised over public-service corporations should be extended also to combinations which control necessaries of life, such as meat, oil, or coal."
* Plus, "franchises should never be granted except for a limited time, and never without proper provision for compensation to the public."
* Creation of a "Federal Bureau of Corporations."
* Regarding people making a fortune, "It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community."
* Using the Department of Agriculture to "cover all phases of farm life."
* And finally, one of the boldest (and most prescient) calls for executive power expansion in presidential history:
The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.
It's no accident that such a naked government power grab accompanied the very kind of high-sounding national do-gooding that President Obama outlined in his speech, just as it's no coincidence that men who campaign on restraining the executive sing a different tune once they sit in the chair. A government that can sit in judgment of what is and is not "unfair money-getting" is a government that knows little restraint, in either cost or scope. Teddy Roosevelt is the favorite of John McCain, of swashbuckling foreign policy juveniles, of do-something third-party pundits, and of every frustrated sitting politician who isn't getting his way.