Is Obama’s TR Rhetoric Just Talk?

In the same Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt castigated his era’s financial speculators 101 years ago, President Barack Obama spoke to the concerns of America’s 99 percent, those who have struggled while the super-rich prospered. But is Obama’s new rhetoric just talk, asks Danny Schechter.

By Danny Schechter

Is Barack Obama changing? If so, many in the Occupy Wall Street Movement are patting their efforts on the back, and even claiming credit for what looks like a shift by the President towards a more engaged campaign discussing economic fairness.

Obama’s speech in Kansas was modeled on remarks made by the Republican Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt in 1910. There’s nothing like quoting a Republican for credible centrist positioning. (Note: he quotes TR, not FDR.) Next, will he embrace GOP President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the Military Industrial Complex? Unlikely.

President Theodore Roosevelt

Still, Richard Eskow was quick to salute the new Obama: “Barack Obama channeled one of American history’s truly transformative figures by visiting the tiny Kansas town where Teddy Roosevelt gave his ‘New Nationalism’ speech over a century ago. It was refreshing to see the President invoke his predecessor, who was a powerful and fearless agent of change both inside and outside the White House.

“For the first time the President directly confronted the injustice of our growing economic divide, which were caused by the ongoing rapacity of the already-wealthy. He promised to take real action against the bankers who accepted our help after ruining the economy, then went on hoarding the nation’s wealth for themselves at everyone else’s expense.

“Teddy would have been proud.” (Of course, Roosevelt also was proud of his role in the Spanish-American War, which spilled over into a bloody counterinsurgency war in the Philippines, a version of the Vietnam War before the Vietnam War.)

Clearly it’s more heartening to hear the President’s new-found embrace of the needs of the millions being hurt by Wall Street’s crime spree, rather than watch his more devious collusion with it.

Still, his speech seemed more radical because of the way the Right attacked it. A columnist for the Wall Street Journal compared him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but also saw the speech for what it was a campaign posture, a technique for rallying a disenchanted base, not a promise of tough action by the White House.

Writes Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal, “Some will say hearing crude Chavista populism in the Obama speech is an overreaction. That once it’s understood the Kansas speech was the work of the party leader, not the president of the United States, it becomes easier to think about it without overreacting to its intense and vivid rhetoric.”

President Teddy Roosevelt was sincerely battling the monopolists of his time, not opportunistically playing politics.

“One of the fundamental necessities in a representative government such as ours,” Roosevelt said, “is to make certain that the men to whom the people delegate their power shall serve the people by whom they are elected, and not the special interests.”

He also said, “No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered-not gambling in stocks, but service rendered.”

Amen. But just recycling TR’s rhetoric isn’t the same as applying his trust-busting policies. Even Eskow admits that, noting “the Obama Justice Department sits idly by as the SEC continues to let major corporations pay slap-on-the-wrist fines for executive criminality fines that are often paid by the same shareholders they deceived while ‘neither admitting nor denying wrongdoing.’”

Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog goes further: “Wow, I have to hand it to Obama’s spinmeisters. They’ve managed to find a way to resurrect his old hopium branding by calling it something completely different that still has many of the old associations.

“And we have a twofer in Obama’s launch of his new branding as True Son of Teddy Roosevelt. The second element of this finesse is that Obama is using the Rooseveltian imagery to claim he will pass legislation to get tough on Big Finance miscreants. That posture is, of course, meant to underscore the idea that you just can’t get the perps with the present, weak set of laws.”

Obama chastised “financial institutions whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers or making risky bets that could damage the entire economy” and declared “I’ll be calling for legislation that makes [anti-fraud] penalties count so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.”

Sounds good, except there are laws and rules on the books right now that could be deployed!

Trying to get new “anti-business” legislation through the Republican Congress is sure to be a non-starter and only intended to give him a new club to attack his adversaries with, rather than crack down on Wall Street fraud.

Writes Smith, “No, it has plenty of tools, starting with Sarbanes Oxley. As we’ve discussed at length in earlier posts, Sarbox was designed to eliminate the CEO and top brass ‘know nothing’ excuse. And the language for civil and criminal charges is parallel, so a prosecutor could file criminal charges, and if successful, could then open up a related [civil] case.

“Sarbox required that top executives (which means at least the CEO and CFO) certify the adequacy of internal controls, and for a big financial firm, that has to include risk controls and position valuation. The fact that the Administration didn’t attempt to go after, for instance, AIG on Sarbox is inexcusable.”

We can go on and on detailing the many ways the President, reborn as Teddy Roosevelt, was anything but a rough rider charging up Wall Street hill. Writing on Huff Post, Jim Sleeper, a former journalist turned Yale professor, compared Obama’s speech to suggestions in an earlier article in the New York Times by Drew Westen, a critic telling him what he should be saying:

“Here are some of the lines that Westen suggested in his essay last summer. Following them are the ones Obama delivered this week.”

Westen last summer on what Obama should say:

“Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness.”

Obama last week:

“Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. …

“It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government. Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It’s never worked.”

Well, at least Obama is open to suggestions, but is it for a turnaround in the way he’s governing,  or is it to find new applause lines?

Writes financial analyst Ellen Brown, “The continued dominance of the Wall Street money machine depends on collective amnesia. The fact that this memory is surfacing again may be the machine’s greatest threat — and our greatest hope as a nation. Order his Attorney General to enforce the laws right now.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs on He directed Plunder, a film about Wall Street crime. ( Comments to [email protected]  Twitter: DissectorEvents

2 comments for “Is Obama’s TR Rhetoric Just Talk?

  1. angryspittle
    December 13, 2011 at 13:14

    Obama talks the talk but he is a paraplegic.

  2. Big Em
    December 10, 2011 at 12:22

    I for one definitely favor the pessimistic side of Danny Schechter’s analysis. I see no reason to believe that Obama or the Dems are going to actually ‘get tough’ with Wall Street anytime soon. Why would they? They’ve gotten this far with their triangulation of the public will, so what would ‘incentivise’ them to abandon it? With the way that US politics (national, state, & local) have reverted back to a ‘pay-to-play’ ethos since the late 1970s and especially the 1980s, it’s going to take some MAJOR event(s) — like an even more severe recession, for instance — before most of the electorate gets really serious about good solutions and elects appropriate politicians (ie; whom I would argue are presently consigned to fringe 3rd party haunts, such as The Greens or Socialists) who can change the underlying structural problems in our body politic. Meanwhile, Obama/Dems will continue to degrade the significance of major historical humanitarian programs (rare as they were) of previous presidents by crassly using them as this week’s talking points, to be quickly forgotten by next month.

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