Obama's new 'Teddy Roosevelt' populism: Will it help in 2012?

The president tries to find his voice by channeling the progressive politics of an early 20th century GOP president

President Barack Obama pauses during an economic speech in Kansas in which he invoked the legacy of Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, who focused relentlessly on the middle class.
(Image credit: Julie Denesha/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, President Obama issued a rousing call for a stronger government role in protecting the middle class, and a stinging rebuke of GOP-backed "trickle-down economics." The location of the speech — Osawatomie, Kan. — was no accident. In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt used a famous speech there to demand a "square deal" for average Americans and promote a "New Nationalism" that became the framework for the progressive era. Channeling Teddy and Occupy Wall Street, Obama made a moral and economic case for tackling America's rising wealth disparity. Will emulating TR's populist message help Obama win re-election?

This was an inspired choice: Apparently, Obama is "a Teddy Roosevelt nerd" just like me, says John Avlon at CNN. So surely, "the irony that a Republican president defined the progressive era is not lost" on him. In fact, it's an association Obama is "courting directly in a bid to broaden the appeal of his 2012 agenda beyond partisan lines." Roosevelt is a hero to "Republicans, Democrats, and especially independents," and invoking his ghost lets Obama cleverly "strike populist tones and sound less like a liberal social democrat."

"Why Obama is listening to Teddy Roosevelt for 2012"

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But Teddy lost: The trouble with the Osawatomie symbolism, at least for Obama, "is that Roosevelt, promoting those ideas, went on to lose his bid to return to the White House in 1912," says Ken Walsh at U.S. News. Instead of leading a progressive revolution, TR went down "amid charges that he was a demagogue who favored a vast over-reach in federal power." That makes this venue choice a "bad omen for Obama."

"Teddy Roosevelt a bad omen for Obama?"

Regardless, this is helping Obama find his voice: Wisely, Obama wasn't directly comparing himself to "one of America's truly great presidents," says John Cassidy at The New Yorker. He merely used Roosevelt's speech as "a convenient framing device" to lay out his own refreshingly "strong and cogent" defense of the middle class, and a devastating critique of today's GOP. Just in time for 2012, Obama "found his voice, or Teddy Roosevelt's voice," and "it was a big improvement."

"Invoking Teddy Roosevelt, Obama finds his voice"

C'mon. This vision is dated — and destructive: Obama has already absurdly claimed the mantles of "Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan," says Michael Knox Beran at National Review. But Teddy Roosevelt is actually pretty apt, since both he and Obama fought for more government. Obama, though, is "out of step with the time." In 1910, "government spending amounted to about 8 percent of GDP." Now it's 40 percent, and "the dead hand of Big Statism is destroying the economies of the West."

"Big Statism in Osawatomie"

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