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Obama as the Next Roosevelt

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/tr.jpgPresident Theodore Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) may be a different kind of Democrat, but in one respect his candidacy looks formulaic: like virtually every Democrat to run for president in the last 30 years, Obama seems intent on mimicking the style of John F. Kennedy. This is not surprising. JFK remains a cultural icon, representing Democrats’ best conception of themselves. But given Obama’s aspiration to practice a transformative politics in this season of discontent, Kennedy may not be the senator’s best role model. The man he really wants to be is Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt came to office in an era of social and economic upheaval much like our own. A new-model economy, fueled by massive business conglomerations that the press called “trusts,” flushed the country with unprecedented wealth, even as it destroyed old trades and industries. The industrial boom sent standards of living soaring, but also produced glaring inequality and a pervasive sense of cultural disorientation.

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Politics-150x150_3259.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Meanwhile, immigrants arrived at the nation’s shores in staggering volume, straining cities’ social infrastructures and upending urban politics. As the century began, Americans found themselves prosperous, yet imperiled; blessed with undreamt-of opportunities, yet uncertain of the future.

The parallels to the present are too stark to miss, and make Roosevelt’s response worth noting. More than any other political figure of his era, Roosevelt understood Americans’ discontent. He diagnosed the nation’s anomie as, most fundamentally, a fear that the circumstances of the new century were undermining the American form of democratic life. In response, Roosevelt called the country to a new politics of republican reform aimed at preserving the social institutions and civic habits that made self-government possible.

For Roosevelt, the politics of reform was a politics of transformation. He believed fervently in the capacity of individual citizens to improve themselves and, acting together, to improve the world.

Indeed, democracy was for Roosevelt a continuing project in moral betterment. “Self-government is not an easy thing,” Roosevelt said in 1905. “Only those communities are fit for it in which the average individual practices the virtues of self-command, of self-restraint, and of wise disinterestedness.” Democracy required good character. It required citizens to become good people. And government, he thought, had a role to play.

Roosevelt wanted to use government to make the industrial age hospitable to self-rule. His programs—regulation of working conditions, a minimum wage and tax benefits to promote marriage and family, to name a few—were meant to secure a civic environment in which citizens could acquire the character traits necessary for democracy. Roosevelt saw these as personal independence, sympathy for one’s fellow citizens and, above all, commitment to the larger community that was the nation.

Eventually this logic led Roosevelt to advocate what we would call a social welfare state. Though he was never much interested in projects to redistribute wealth, he firmly believed government welfare policies could be used to give every American a fair chance “to show the stuff that was in him.” Government’s meliorative powers could be a means to foster democratic character in individual citizens.

Today Obama is calling for a new politics of shared purpose to transcend the familiar divisions of right and left. He could learn a lot from Roosevelt. At its best, Obama’s “yes, we can” rhetoric gestures toward Roosevelt’s central insight that democracy requires us to better ourselves and our society. It requires us, each generation, to rejuvenate the moral and social foundations of our national life. Embracing that theme forthrightly would deepen the senator’s message—give it real content and provide inspiration for a truly transformative agenda.

If preserving self-government in Roosevelt’s day involved curbing the destructive tendencies of the industrial economy, preserving it today might require a new tax code to promote savings, investment, and social mobility. It might involve education reform to provide all Americans the skills necessary to succeed in the technological age along with the knowledge necessary to participate meaningfully in the country’s political life. It might mean restructuring America’s health-care system to ensure broad access to the fruits of medical innovations, and political reform to strip lobbyists’ influence and change the way Washington does business.

A politics focused on preserving self-government is, as Roosevelt showed, a politics that can unite left and right. It draws on the conservative insight that political liberty is impossible without a healthy, robust civil society. And it incorporates the liberal conviction that government can be a force for that society’s good.

Most important, in our age of cynicism and resignation, this politics offers real hope for the future, by challenging Americans to live up to their identity as a free people. “Here we are not ruled over by others,” Roosevelt once said, “we rule ourselves.” Consequently, “we have the responsibilities of sovereigns, not of subjects.”

America can be a better place, we can be better people, if we take up the responsibilities of freedom. If Obama wants to deliver change Americans can believe in, Roosevelt’s message is one he should preach.

Joshua Hawley is the author of “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.” He is now a judicial clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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