On Marriage Equality, Barack Obama Continues to Model Theodore Roosevelt

Yesterday, Barack Obama conducted an interview with ABC News and affirmed his support for marriage equality. Today the media is, rightly, considering the historic and political impact of this decision. But taking a broader view of this decision within the context of the entire Obama administration, this is one more example of the President finding a role model in Theodore Roosevelt.

The modeling of Teddy Roosevelt was at its least subtle in December of last year, when President Obama went to¬†Osawatomie, Kansas to deliver a speech focused on income inequality and corporate excess. Roosevelt had gone to that same town in 1910, after leaving office after the 1908 election, and delivered a speech that came to be known as the “New Nationalism Speech.” In Roosevelt’s speech, he spoke forcefully of the need of all branches of government to recognize that they should serve the people rather than the corporate interests that had taken control of the political process. Roosevelt called for taxes on the wealthy to prevent a new aristocracy from robbing the vast majority of Americans of opportunity.

Barack Obama touched upon the same themes in his Osawatomie speech. Obama noted that “the typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more…[while]…the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about six percent.” Echoing one of Roosevelt’s central themes, Obama attacked campaign financing, explaining that “inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.”

Corporate interests didn't really like Teddy either

However, the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt extends beyond this speech. As President, Barack Obama first invoked Teddy Roosevelt in September 2009 when he spoke before Congress calling for health care reform. Within the first 5 substantive paragraphs of the speech, Obama reminded Congress and the American people that “it has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform.” Roosevelt’s Progressive Party called for comprehensive reform of health insurance at a time when the industry was massively expanding and costs were keeping the benefits of medical technology out of reach for most Americans. Roosevelt looked in part to the German program instituted in 1883 by Otto von Bismarck, which provided universal health insurance coverage.

On April 25, Joe Biden spoke at NYU and again invoked the mantle of Roosevelt.

Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt. Speak softly and carry a big stick. End of quote. I promise you, the president has a big stick.

Putting the dick joke aside, Biden accurately described the course of foreign policy in the Obama administration. Putting aside last week’s focus on the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden raid, Obama’s foreign policy has been quiet and brutal. Without “Mission Accomplished” banners and persistent tinkering with the “Terror Alert Level” the longtime¬†domestic lens of foreign policy, Obama has overseen a wide-reaching and merciless campaign to eliminate individual terror leaders.

In many ways, this is an instance of “do as I say, not as I do.” While known for this famous quote, Teddy Roosevelt was extraordinarily loud in the conduct of foreign affairs. He built the Panama Canal — and not just “authorized” he actually went down and watched for a while. Roosevelt sent the Navy around the world, a purely symbolic gesture, to show European powers that the U.S. meant business.

He even won a Nobel Peace Prize (know of any other President who has done that?) for negotiating the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War.

And now President Obama has spoken out publicly in defense of marriage equality. As President, there is little Obama can do to encourage marriage equality. Certainly little more than he already has by halting the Justice Department defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that allows states to deny rights to gay marriages officiated in other states. But taking the issue of marriage equality to the public in a televised interview, he recognized one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most enduring political strategies.

Teddy Roosevelt recognized that for all the practical political power of the President, there is much that the office cannot accomplish. But at the same time, the public fascination with the office affords the President extensive influence over public opinion and the opportunity to inspire change. Roosevelt called it a “Bully Pulpit” (“Bully” was one of Roosevelt’s favorite terms and meant “superb” rather than “the prick in high school who gave you a wedgie” — like some assholes). Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House, becoming the first African-American entertained at the White House. He spoke in favor of Women’s Suffrage. He called for states to institute minimum wages and labor regulations. Many planks of his Progressive party platform ultimately came to pass, in no small part due to the changing attitudes inspired by his public advocacy of causes he could not legislate.

Barack Obama was not going to change the result of the North Carolina election banning gay marriage. Barack Obama cannot force states to perform gay marriages (at least not directly…Supreme Court nominations can have that effect), but Obama is the most powerful man in the world and he just told America that he supports marriage equality on national news because he can demand a network camera with a few hours’ notice. It is the Bully Pulpit supercharged with the power of a 24-hour news cycle.

Teddy Roosevelt did not accomplish every one of his goals. He was defeated in the 1912 election because of intransigent Republicans angered by his populist, progressive agenda. But the guy is on Mount Rushmore, so he’s not the worst role model.

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