Barack Obama channeled Teddy Roosevelt this week in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan. Supporters are calling it the most significant economic speech of his administration.
But critics rightly point out that the Teddy Roosevelt whom Obama invoked was not the beloved 26th president and standard-bearer of the GOP. Instead, it was the radicalized third-party candidate seeking a third term and the man whose progressivism was a precursor to the rise of big government in the later 20th century. What's more, President Obama's speech was so full of reckless accusations and misinformation that The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog gave it three Pinocchios, signifying "significant factual errors."
President Obama has a history of comparing himself to American giants -- from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan. So it's no surprise that he would choose to give his speech in the same town as Teddy Roosevelt's 1910 address. But whenever Obama invokes past heroes, he ends up looking smaller. And this week's speech was a prime example.
Roosevelt at least acknowledged that he was launching a radical platform; whatever one might think about the progressivism he was trying to usher in, Roosevelt was man enough to admit that what he was proposing was a huge departure from the past. Obama, on the other hand, tried to cloak much of what he said in soothing rhetoric, invoking his grandparents' Kansas roots and depicting a long-lost time when "hard work paid off, responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, where you came from or how you started out."
This president seems to think that period in American history is now gone -- and he blames corporations and the rich for destroying it. But he pulled his punches in the speech, never quite owning up to the implications of what he was saying.
For example, when Obama claimed that "huge advances in technology have allowed businesses to do more with less and made it easier for them to set up shop and hire workers anywhere in the world," he never quite had the nerve to describe how he would solve the problem. Teddy Roosevelt thought big corporations were the enemy of the common man and proposed a Bureau of Corporations to control their power. Would Obama like to prevent companies from shipping jobs overseas? No doubt he would -- but he won't say it directly.
Doing so might risk his ability to raise political contributions from donors whose wealth comes from profits made because cheaper labor is available offshore. And it might offend many middle-class, even poor, people who realize that their lives are better because they have access to cheaper goods made in China, Thailand, Mexico and elsewhere -- goods they couldn't afford if American workers were producing them.
So instead of launching into a radical critique of American capitalism, the president hints around the edges. He plays class warfare, even while he protests that he isn't. Instead of embracing redistribution of wealth directly, he creates straw men, as he did over and over again in the speech.
He claimed that it's unfair for construction workers, teachers, and nurses earning $50,000 a year "to pay a higher tax rate than somebody pulling in $50 million," and that a "quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households." He even said that "some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent."
But as The Washington Post pointed out, of the top 400 wealthiest individuals in the U.S. in 2008 (the last year for which such data is available), most paid in excess of 35 percent in taxes and "only 17 had a marginal rate of zero to 26 percent." Even the Post acknowledged that for this handful of individuals, there might well be reasonable explanations why they paid so little, including that they earned little or nothing that year.
If Barack Obama were really another Teddy Roosevelt, he'd take his chances and say what he means. If he wants to redistribute wealth and tell corporations how much profit they can earn and how many workers they must hire, let him take his case to the American people.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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