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Echoes of TR in 2012 themes

President Obama recently spoke in Osawatomie, Kan., the site of Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism speech in August 1910, to set the major themes for his 2012 reelection campaign.

President Obama recently spoke in Osawatomie, Kan., the site of Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism speech in August 1910, to set the major themes for his 2012 reelection campaign.

What would the Rough Rider have thought of his successor's invocation of his call for social justice and a strong president to implement that program? While it is impossible to say what a man who died in 1919 would have thought of contemporary events, the broad themes of Obama's speech - economic inequality, the need for regulation, and the use of government power - echoed what Roosevelt had to say a century ago in his own race for the White House.

TR spoke out in 1912 because he believed that the two dominant parties had become corrupted by money and corporate power.

"Only by supporting the Progressive Party can you strike any effective blow against boss rule and machine and ring politics in the United States," he said.

The cornerstone of Roosevelt's appeal was that "in the long run this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it is a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."

Roosevelt's concern for the organic unity of all members of American society sounds odd amid the polarized politics of the present time, but it drove his belief that government could be a vital force in preserving democratic values. Thus, he concluded that large corporations must be regulated through the action of the federal government to ensure human rights loomed larger than property rights.

In this campaign, he was no radical. He assured his listeners that he respected private initiative and business growth.

"We do not propose to do anything that will interfere with prosperity, but we want it passed around," he said.

To that end, Roosevelt favored what were then innovative reforms such as a minimum wage, limited working hours for women, and restrictions on child labor. He proposed a form of old-age pensions and medical insurance. He sought a regulatory commission to oversee the behavior of big business. Above all, he said, "we propose to lift the burdens from the lowly and the weary, from the poor and oppressed."

These ideas led conservatives to attack Roosevelt for preaching "class hatred." He retorted, "I never preached hatred of any class in my life, excepting the class of crooks."

It was not bigness in business that bothered Roosevelt. He admired those large businesses that worked, as he saw it, for the public good. He deplored the large firms that gouged the public or pursued antilabor and monopolistic practices. There were good trusts and bad trusts. "I don't draw the line against size, I draw it against conduct," Roosevelt proclaimed.

In the long run, what proved significant about Roosevelt in 1912 was his espousal of the idea that a strong president should endeavor to change the rules of the game to help the middle class compete in a world where corporate power dominated. He failed in his electoral quest, but his ideas of greater government regulation and social justice inspired a generation of reformers. In time, amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, Theodore Roosevelt's reforms would find another champion in his distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For most of the 20th century, the reform principles and programs of Theodore Roosevelt's time seemed part of the national consensus. Today that social compact is challenged.

Prominent conservative voices seek a repeal of child-labor laws and the dismantling of the regulatory state in other areas. They regard Roosevelt as a misguided harbinger of the alleged excesses of big government that they deplore.

Democrats and liberals see the modern repudiation of the achievements of the Progressive Era as a return to what Roosevelt called in 1912 "the reign of an industrial oligarchy, the enthronement of privilege, and a permanent and widespread inequality of opportunity."

Roosevelt lost in 1912 because his program was too advanced for the American people. They chose instead the more cautious course of Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.

Obama faces different challenges. His party is united, but the economy is weak and the nation uneasy with his administration. Unlike the formidable obstacles that Roosevelt faced in 1912, the opposition to Obama seems poised to make the least of its opportunities.

If 1912 put several distinguished candidates before the American people, the Republicans today seem hard-pressed to find one compelling standard-bearer. As a result, Obama may escape the fate of TR and win another four years in the White House.