Osawatomie, Kansas, is where Theodore Roosevelt famously announced his embrace of progressive politics—from atop a kitchen table, no less, displaying the irrepressible verve that led Henry Adams to call him a “steam engine in trousers.” President Barack Obama, not famous for irrepressible verve, went to Osawatomie last Tuesday looking to inject some life into his flagging political fortunes. The effect was more like a trip to an intellectual mausoleum.
Obama’s rhetoric sounded dated, and his policy prescriptions too. But that should come as no surprise. Obama’s determination to pluck up the agenda of the 26th president only highlights the fact that American liberalism has fallen into philosophical decrepitude. The American left has not had a significant new idea since the progressive period. Yet the progressives’ political program has been tried—fulsomely—without notable success. Thus the plight of Barack Obama: To win reelection, he must sell the country an agenda that is neither new nor promising as a solution to maladies that same agenda helped create.
Still, Obama’s speech should be a call to arms—for conservatives. Theodore Roosevelt was right to insist at Osawatomie that “our country, this great Republic” will prosper in the long run only with an economy in which “each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” The progressive program he advocated, however, conspicuously failed to deliver on that ambition. It is up to conservatives to undo Roosevelt’s Osawatomie mistake and forge a better way.
That Obama is no TR should go without saying. Roosevelt was justly renowned as a man of action, as politically bold as he was personally courageous. Obama, by contrast, prefers to lead from behind. But Obama’s choice to begin his reelection campaign in Osawatomie was in one sense entirely appropriate. That is where Theodore Roosevelt made the fateful choice to embrace government activism. The consequences still linger.
Roosevelt came to Osawatomie in 1910 vying to regain control of a progressive movement that had splintered badly after his departure from the White House the previous year. Until that time, progressivism had been a largely Republican phenomenon. Indeed, the progressive movement was essentially a reformist group within conservatism, with Roosevelt as its leader. During his tenure as president, TR championed new regulations to guarantee the safety of food and medicines; new disclosure requirements for corporations; new workplace safety standards; tax support for children and marriage; and a much larger Navy. These policies amounted to a more active federal government, to be sure, but for the purpose of promoting market competition, middle-class mobility, and a strong national defense. Roosevelt was the original Sam’s Club Republican.
Republican progressives revered Roosevelt, but they never trusted his successor, the affable yet politically bumbling William Howard Taft. By 1910, with Roosevelt out of political life, the progressive movement was rent by personal infighting and sharp disagreement over the shape of future reforms. For his part, Roosevelt had developed his own doubts in his year on safari and then touring Europe about the Republican establishment’s commitment to reform, and, perhaps influenced by visits to European capitals where Bismarckian social planning was in vogue, arrived in Osawatomie determined to steer progressivism in a more statist direction.
On that humid day in August, Roosevelt led the progressive movement out of the conservative coalition, articulating a set of ideas that would come to define American liberalism instead. He began by identifying with prescience the troubling dichotomies of the industrial age. The country had never been more prosperous, but the wages available to low-skilled workers were low, even paltry, the hours long, the work dangerous. American cities had become sites of devastating poverty. And there was a real danger that unless wages and working conditions improved, the bridge between the working and middle classes might collapse altogether, creating a permanent underclass that Roosevelt feared could turn to violence or revolution.