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How Pundits are Misreading Obama’s Speech—and Teddy Roosevelt’s

The ghost of Theodore Roosevelt presided over President Obama's speech yesterday afternoon in Osawatomie, Kansas. Indeed, in the week leading up to the president’s Osawatomie address, the White House made clear that the President was deliberately courting analogies with Roosevelt. TR, after all, had traveled to the very same town nearly 100 years earlier to give his famous “New Nationalism” address, calling for the federal government to ensure that the prerogatives of private property did not trump the rights of the commonwealth. Obama, for his part, explicitly compared America's current economic dislocation and inequality to the dire circumstances of that earlier era, endorsing, as well, some of the remedies Roosevelt had devised in response.

Much of the initial commentary on Obama's Osawatomie speech focused on this channeling of Roosevelt’s progressive ardor from a century before. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne applauded Obama for reclaiming the spirit of Roosevelt’s “great and important New Nationalism speech.” “The Occupy Wall Streeters will especially enjoy this text,” he quipped. And according to the liberal website Firedog Lake, the address was an exercise in “populist rebranding.”

But while commentators, picking up on the president’s own statements of indebtedness, are right to link the “New Nationalism” address and Obama’s remarks as cognate progressive calls to arm, there was another stratum of meaning in TR’s speech at Osawatomie—a more conservative one that has received less attention and that might also prove useful to Obama in his road to reelection.

Roosevelt had been invited to Osawatomie to preside over the dedication of the John Brown Memorial Park, near the site where the radical abolitionist and a small band of his followers had skirmished with a much larger pro-slavery force in 1856. Roosevelt, who had been mulling re-entering the political arena after leaving the White House in 1908, agreed. The association with Brown, who had led the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry that helped to spark the Civil War, would allow Roosevelt to align himself publicly with the insurgents within the GOP and to rebuke the conservative Old Guard establishment.

Much of the contemporary reaction to his “New Nationalism” speech regarded it as channeling the uncompromising spirit of old John Brown. “It is impossible to conceive of a more radical speech, in relation to the interests of wealth, being delivered in this country at the present time by any one outside of the socialist party,” announced the Springfield Republican. Other papers labeled it “communistic” and “anarchistic.”

But Roosevelt did not mean for his speech—the writing of which he largely delegated to an ally, Gifford Pinchot, who held even more extreme views on governmental authority—to be a statement of radical beliefs. He had initially hoped that by championing progressive principles, he could take control of the potentially irresponsible insurgent forces within the GOP and orchestrate a reconciliation with the party’s more conservative wing. In fact, in the address itself, he did not merely define himself as a crusader against special interests; he also signaled his resistance to the excesses of radicalism as well.

His delicate political positioning became clear to those who assembled at the dedication of the John Brown memorial, including a few elderly veterans of the fighting at Osawatomie, expecting to hear something of the abolitionist martyr. In fact, Roosevelt made only a passing reference to Brown in his speech. To many, the omission seemed like a rebuke. As one Kansas editor recalled the event a few years later, with only a slight exaggeration (Roosevelt did invoke Brown twice), the former president “dedicated a monument to John Brown without mentioning…Brown’s name.”

The neglect of Brown was intentional. In the weeks leading up to the speech, Roosevelt’s advisers, specifically Kansas editor William Allen White, had been warning the former president against forging too close an association with Brown, for fear of taking on his radical taint. As White wrote Roosevelt, he considered Brown “a bloody butcher and a fanatic,” and he used his ambivalence toward Brown to make a larger point about the ineffectiveness of extremism in the cause of reform. Roosevelt responded that he largely agreed with White’s estimation of Brown—and extremists more generally. “At the moment I am endeavoring to prevent the John Browns among the insurgents getting themselves into a position from which the Abraham Lincolns cannot extricate themselves,” he explained.

A few days later, Roosevelt published another version of the speech, more conciliatory toward the forces of concentrated wealth, that he wrote himself and that made public his own ambiguous attitude toward the hero of Osawatomie. “John Brown stands to us now as representing the men and the generation who rendered the greatest service ever rendered this country,” Roosevelt wrote in Outlook. “He stood for heroic valor, grim energy, fierce fidelity to high ideals.” Progressives would need to apply those same qualities to the problems of the twentieth century, he insisted.

But Brown, argued Roosevelt, should serve as much as a warning as a model. He represented the dangers inherent in acts of “heedless violence” that would only “invite reaction.” It was the socialists rather than the Progressives who were Brown’s modern day successors; Brown’s “notion that the evils of slavery could be cured by a slave insurrection was a delusion analogous to the delusions of those who expect to cure the evils of plutocracy by arousing the baser passions of workingmen against the rich in an endeavor at violent industrial revolution.” Progressives should not shun the John Browns of the current moment, and could profitably cooperate with them, but should reject the “vindictiveness” that poisoned their works. Instead, they must make sure that it was the spirit of Abraham Lincoln—marked by “patience and moderation in the policy pursued, and … kindly charity and consideration and friendliness to those of opposite belief”—that inspired their efforts.

And so in the statements inspired by his trip to Osawatomie, Roosevelt did not merely announce his commitment to a bold program of progressive activism. He also proclaimed that he would both marshal—and contain—the fervor of his allies in reform. He would protect them from the temptations of both the right and the left. In fact, in his speech, he celebrated the fact that he was denounced—sometimes by the same paper—as both a tool of Wall Street and as a socialist fanatic. That he was the target of the attacks of both reactionaries and radicals was proof, for Roosevelt, of his integrity, of his transcendence of special interests and his devotion to the common good.

In light of this reading of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech, Obama’s cultivation of the historical analogy with TR takes on an additional resonance. For Obama too has often sought to throw his own reasonableness into relief against the excesses of the right and the left, and his remarks at Osawatomie provided him another opportunity to do so. The president invoked the concept of “fairness” fifteen times in his address; the concept clearly compliments the address’s presiding theme of the need to restore a degree of solidarity and common purpose to the economic realm. But the references to fairness, as well as his portrayal of the current crisis as a “make or break moment for the middle class,” also suggest a subtle act of political positioning. By invoking fairness, Obama, like Roosevelt, suggests that he will reject the special interests who threaten the unity of the nation, no matter their origin on the political spectrum.

In fact, if Roosevelt scanted John Brown in his speech, Obama paid only a modest tribute to the Occupy movement that has done much to bring the issue of income inequality into the public consciousness. “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules,” he declared. “Those aren’t Democratic or Republican values; 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values, and we have to reclaim them.” Obama seemed to endorse the Occupy movement’s concerns while distancing himself from its divisiveness. In the months ahead, if Obama can harness the movement's intense commitment to economic egalitarianism while at the same time reaching out to moderates through a repudiation of the spirit of “vindictiveness,” the president will prove himself an even more savvy student of Roosevelt’s address at Osawatomie than many have suspected.

Benjamin Soskis is a Fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University. He is writing, with John Stauffer, a history of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.