Obama and the Other Roosevelt
In what ways does Teddy Roosevelt serve as a role model for Barack Obama?
November 6, 2008
At first glance, comparing the slender Barack Obama to the rotund Teddy Roosevelt would seem to be a stretch.
However, there are more similarities between the two than meet the eye. Observe how, at a campaign speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in November 2007, Obama recited a core theme of his campaign:
“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists — and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”
Now that he has been elected, his determined stance is sure to meet the ironclad resistance of Washington lobbyists. However, Obama’s intention to take on the lobbyists — and defeat them — recalls a famous political tactic used in the early 20th century.
Take a close look at these lines:
“The present conditions of business cannot be accepted as satisfactory. There are too many who do not prosper enough, and of the few who prosper greatly, there are certainly some whose prosperity does not mean well for the country.”
By the people, for the people
That surely sounds like an excerpt from a stump speech you might have heard just the other day. It isn’t. Rather, these words were spoken in August 1912.
And, in language that few U.S. politicians would dare use now, almost a century after they were first stated, this president went on to say:
“Rational Progressives, no matter how radical, are well aware that nothing the government can do will make some men prosper, and we heartily approve the prosperity, no matter how great, of any man, if it comes as an incident to rendering service to the community.”
He concluded by saying: “But we wish to shape conditions so that a greater number of the small men who are decent, industrious and energetic shall be able to succeed, and so that the big man who is dishonest shall not be allowed to succeed at all.”
Was that Obama? Sure, sounds like him — but it isn’t. The source of these quotes is none other than the man whose refusal to shoot a baby bear cub on a hunting trip earned him the nickname “Teddy” — Theodore Roosevelt.
This Roosevelt was known as the original “trust buster.” Altogether, the first President Roosevelt busted over 40 trusts — that is, businesses which had succeeded in controlling markets, thus becoming monopolies.
He thus took on corporate titans such as the Northern Securities Company, a railroad company which controlled major rail lines across the United States. Roosevelt sued the Northern Securities Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller and others, under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.
Roosevelt also helped pass the Hepburn Act of 1906, which allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads by allowing it to set maximum rates and discontinue free passes for loyal shippers.
In addition, Roosevelt worked to clean up the food and meatpacking industries when he pushed the U.S. Congress to pass the “Pure Food and Drug Act” and the “Meat Inspection Act.”
Ultimately, he succeeded in his determined effort to reign in the overly dominant industries and corporations of the era — and thus strengthened the economic vitality of the United States overall.
In our time, the vast power of U.S. corporations — especially on Wall Street — has led to the current calamities in the nation’s economy. Decades of anti-regulatory zeal have led to a big deficit in the ability to balance corporate and social interests.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will succeed in his quest to loosen the stranglehold corporate lobbyists have over today’s Washington, and hence in many ways over the economic fate of the American people.
But he has certainly been asking the right questions — as was Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has himself voiced concerns about the improper influence of corporate lobbyists over the nation’s business.
The underlying desire to put an end to the excesses of certain corporations and their executives is a matter which Teddy Roosevelt put squarely on the national agenda.
Obama may be called naïve for trying to stick to the same guns as the illustrious, swashbuckling crusader Teddy Roosevelt a century before him. But that does not make his efforts any less necessary, or any less worthy — whatever the odds of success are.
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part series. Read Part I here.
Obama may be called naïve for trying to stick to the same guns as the illustrious, swashbuckling crusader Teddy Roosevelt a century before him.
Roosevelt took on corporate titans such as the Northern Securities Company, a railroad company which controlled major rail lines across the United States.
Obama's intention to take on the lobbyists — and defeat them — recalls a famous political tactic used in the early 20th century.