Two months ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, that was intended to invoke the memory of a speech given by former president Theodore Roosevelt. What Obama failed to realize, though, is that he is no Teddy Roosevelt. He is more like the mustached president’s distant cousin and successor in the White House, Franklin Roosevelt. The difference between the two Roosevelts is the distinction between a visionary and a central planner.
Obama has not been the visionary leader able to utilize the resources of the nation to pull it out of the economic mire. Instead, Obama has shown himself to be an FDR-esque central planner, with a vision of the country that goes no further than the present.
When Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party for president at the 2008 convention, he stood in front of a colonnaded, flag-draped stage. Conservative commentators at the time criticized the set-up as being indicative of a candidate who had much flash but little substance.
Candidate Obama ran on a message of “change we can believe in.” He was applauded for his visionary and hopeful rhetoric, and was accomplished at playing to idealism of young voters who went for him in a big way. Now, as he faces reelection with the nation still struggling to find the other side of a deep recession, he is calling on the memory of a Republican leader.
What Teddy Roosevelt offered the American people was a vision of what could be. Politicians are often trying to downplay fears and anxieties in the electorate by promising that “America’s best days, and democracy’s best days, lie ahead.” Roosevelt did more than promise though.
During the first Roosevelt administration, the national parks were created, anti-trust legislation was passed, work on the Panama Canal began, and America set itself up to be a major player in international affairs by mediating conflicts and increasing the size of its navy. All of this was a result of Roosevelt’s vision of what America could become – not just in four years, but decades later. It was a far-sighted understanding of the issues facing the nation that motivated Teddy’s actions.
When Teddy ascended to the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley, times were good. The transcontinental railroads had connected East to West, businesses were prospering, and there was plenty of work to be found.
But when his cousin took the oath in 1933, things were much different. The stock market had crashed in 1929 sending the country into the start of the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce and the nation lacked confidence. Where Teddy had seen the possibility of harnessing the productive capabilities of the country for the good of all, Franklin was faced with the immediate problems of joblessness and poverty.
Franklin came in with a plan. He determined to address the issues at hand and instituted such programs as Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, and Agricultural Adjustment Act. Many of the programs and policies have remained through the years, most notably Social Security. Franklin’s plans were not far-sighted – just consider the issues facing Social Security at present.
Here is where the two Roosevelts diverge. Teddy created a framework that attempted to assure Americans that hard work would be rewarded. He sought to truly level the playing field between managers and workers. Labor unions grew during his presidency, offering workers protections that were unavailable to their fathers. Commerce thrived as new areas of the country were opened to economic development. For Franklin, private business was unable to provide the kind of investment necessary to get the country working. It was the job of the government, in all its paternalistic benevolence, to give to the people what it was deemed they needed.
Today, as Obama faces low poll numbers and an increasingly adversarial Congress, he is invoking the spirit of Teddy while practicing the politics of Franklin. Obama is forced to shove through legislation without popular support primarily because he has not found a way to articulate his vision to the American people.
This may be because he does not have a vision to articulate. During the campaign, Obama played on the idealistic streak that runs through most people by speaking of “hope” and “change” – amorphous words that play well in a 30 second ad.
As a campaigner, he truly was a visionary and groundbreaking. As a leader he has been unable to find the same kind of inspirational tone that invigorated his supporters in 2008. It seems that he took his election as a political blank check written in confidence by the American people. Obama thinks he can simply tell us what is wrong and how to fix it without having to convince us.
Unless Obama can find a way to reclaim and better articulate his vision, the country will continue to suffer.
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