Can Obama Be the Next Teddy Roosevelt?

In America's changing economy and powerful business interests, our current president faces some of the same challenges as our 26th

Obama getting on plane - Carolyn Kaster AP - banner.jpg

OYSTER BAY, N.Y. -- In a display case at Sagamore Hill, the historic estate of President Theodore Roosevelt, a polished blue tablet reads, "By the turn of the century, business trusts controlled 65 percent of American wealth and Wall Street dictated the course of the American economy." A century-old editorial cartoon depicts the president firing a gun at a portly man with "The Trusts" scrawled upon the man's ample belly.

My 14-year-old son soaked this in with a laugh during a Thanksgiving weekend visit to the national park. "TR rocked," Tyler said. "Can Obama be the next TR?"

That is a question I've been asking myself since 2008 when I did a series of stories with a colleague at The Associated Press about the presidency and the role of that office in these times of immense change. One of the series' shorter pieces, written in March 2008, suggested that Obama and GOP candidate John McCain had the potential to be "TR 2.0."

"We're living in an era of brutal transition not unlike the turn of the last century, when Teddy Roosevelt and fellow Progressive reformers helped lead an anxious nation from the agriculture era to the industrial age," I wrote. The transition from an industrial economy to the information age and a global economy is creating problems that TR would recognize: A widening gap between the rich and poor, decreased social mobility and a loss of faith in social institutions, particularly politics. Into that breach stepped Obama, a transitional figure who promised a new breed of leadership that was bigger than partisanship.

He helped lead the country out of a financial crisis, ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden and pushed through landmark health care reforms (with echoes of TR's agenda), but Obama's presidency is not nearly as transformational as Roosevelt's. At least not yet.

With voters as anxious and angry as they were at the dawn of the 20th century, it makes sense that Obama would travel to Osawatomie, Kansas, this week to draw a line from TR's presidency to his. On Aug. 31, 1910, Roosevelt delivered his New Nationalism address in Osawatomie, where he argued on behalf of a government powerful enough to regulate the economy and guarantee social justice.

"I stand for the square deal," Roosevelt said. "But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service."

In the Kansas address, Roosevelt called for a broad range of social and political reforms including a national health service, social insurance for the elderly, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, workers' compensation for work-related injuries, a graduated federal income tax and the right for women to vote.

He railed against the influence of special interests on politics, calling for strict limits and disclosure of campaign donations and the registration of lobbyists.

Roosevelt lost the 1912 election after he bolted the GOP and created the so-called Bull Moose Party, running second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. But many of the reforms he laid out in Kansas were adopted by Wilson and Roosevelt's cousin, Franklin Roosevelt.

TR thought and acted boldly. He was bigger than any party, a sturdy bridge to the new century. His policies were right for his troubled times.

The question now is whether Obama and his policies are right for these.

Image credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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