Theodore Roosevelt’s Example

Courtesy of glennw on

In 1904, president Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected as a popular champion of progressive values, with a long agenda of reforms that would be opposed every step of the way by moneyed interests.

Sound familiar?

It should. T.R. provides an important historical comparison for Barack Obama’s second term. Despite their many similarities, however, Obama has yet to demonstrate the characteristic that, more than anything, won Teddy his spot on Mt. Rushmore: obdurate and energetic political drive.

Obama needs to find his inner Roosevelt in his relations with Congress, using his predecessor’s example of vigorous political pressure and populist appeals. This approach delivered important bills in the early 20th century such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act and a series of trust-busting measures, all passed in the face of fierce conservative opposition reminiscent of today’s Congress.

Regardless of his electoral mandate, Republicans show no intention of bowing to Obama’s crowded agenda. With McConnell-style politics seemingly destined to dominate the next two years, the bloody battles have already begun. With the unprecedented filibustering of Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, Republicans seem to believe that both decorum and good policy are secondary to continuing the political carnage of Obama’s first term. Leading the charge is freshman senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who seems intent on taking James Inhofe’s title as ‘Worst Senator Ever’ and stop the Hagel nomination with a combination of baseless allegations and McCarthyite headhunting.

In other words, nothing has changed.

But something should. Obama faces pressure for swift action on an immense litany of issues. Immigration activists push to exploit nascent Republican enthusiasm for reform, gun control advocates are refusing to let the historical opportunity of Newtown pass them by, and 35,000 marchers in Washington on Sunday demanded that Obama follow through on promises to fight climate change. On all of these, the president stands with significant majorities of Americans against powerful moneyed interests.

Last year, Obama finally began to show some signs of impatience with Congress: his strategy of taking his policies to the people has paid some dividends, and he has been unafraid to use executive power where possible. But more can be done.

If Obama can channel the Bull Moose’s vigor and charisma, he can create decisive action in the face of stubborn obstructionism. He has a priceless opportunity to push the broad and ambitious agenda denied him in 2009. No longer tied to the dream of compromise, it’s time for the president to pull out all the stops. The people spoke in November, and he can harness their voices again to pressure Congress. He should use all his clout as president to exploit the divisions in the Republican Party – as some extremists -coughTedCruzcough- drift ever further rightward, the discipline of the coalition may crack.

The president spent most of his first term speaking softly about compromise and got nowhere. It’s time to bring out the big stick, and bring the hammer down.

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