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Why Obama is listening to Teddy Roosevelt for 2012

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 10:33 AM EST, Wed December 7, 2011
Teddy Roosevelt, shown in 1915, was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Teddy Roosevelt, shown in 1915, was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: President Obama invoked Republican Teddy Roosevelt for good reason
  • Avlon: TR policies were progressive, he symbolized reform and belief in America
  • TR decried "unholy alliance" between corrupt business and government, he writes
  • Avlon: This is Obama's bid to go beyond partisanship to an older American tradition

(CNN) -- Confession: I'm a Teddy Roosevelt nerd. And apparently President Obama is as well.

The town of Osawatomie, Kansas, was chosen as the location of a major speech Tuesday framing the 2012 election as"a make-or-break moment for the middle class," what the president described as "the defining issue of our time."

Back in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt chose the town to unveil his doctrine of the New Nationalism, an agenda that defined the progressive era.

The irony that a Republican president defined the progressive era is not lost on Barack Obama. It's an association he is courting directly in a bid to broaden the appeal of his 2012 agenda beyond partisan lines by rooting it in an older American tradition.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

In his "New Nationalism" speech, TR backed policies that became the basis of his 1912 campaign, including the minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, women's suffrage and the federal income tax. He supported early campaign finance laws, lobbyist registration and the creation of a federal securities commission.

Most of all, TR took aim at "the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics." This remains a relevant concern in an age of multibillion-dollar Wall Street bailouts and Occupy protests.

In recent years, TR has been a bipartisan political icon, cited by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, while more ideological figures like FDR and Reagan are praised primarily along partisan lines.

The unapologetic Americanism and aggressive reforms advocated by an iconic rugged individualist like TR have broad appeal to Republicans, Democrats and especially independents.

To this end, earlier in his term, President Obama was said to be reading Edmund Morris' Pulitzer Prize-winning initial volume of his essential TR trilogy, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." TR's often-quoted belief that "This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in" clearly resonates with our current president.

Interestingly, however, in recent years representatives of the right-wing talk radio crowd have started to throw Teddy Roosevelt under the bus as part of their RINO (Republican in Name Only) hunting expeditions. Notably, Glenn Beck dismissed John McCain as "this weird progressive like Teddy Roosevelt" as part of the purge.

This attempted purge of Teddy Roosevelt by some conservatives reflects the electoral opportunity that President Obama is trying to seize in his re-election: painting a picture of a GOP that is too ideologically rigid and extreme to respond to the remorseless squeeze of the forgotten middle class, while the ranks of the super-rich have grown exponentially in recent decades.

President Obama has gotten the message that this election will be decided by the middle class, and whether they believe the Republican nominee will look out for them more than the Democratic incumbent.

Using TR as an all-American frame, President Obama was able to strike populist tones and sound less like a liberal social democrat, detailing the growing gap in average CEO salaries from 30 times the average worker a few decades ago to 110 times today.

He decried the growth of money in politics, saying we now "run the risk of selling our democracy to the highest bidder." He gained applause for college loan reforms and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, while casting the GOP presidential candidates as advocates of the same financial rules that were widely abused and led to the enduring Great Recession.

Casting our time as analogous to the dislocation caused by the Industrial Revolution, the president argued for a bullish view of American competitiveness in the global economy even with increased government regulation, saying, "The world is shifting to an innovation based economy -- and nobody does innovation better than America."

But most of all this was a speech that offered a clear contrast in government philosophy, between the idea that the government has an active role to play in strengthening the middle class and fueling American meritocracy or whether a more purely free market, laissez-faire capitalism can achieve those goals more effectively in the real world.

This will be a choice, not an echo, election. In the latest chapter of the long debate that pits laissez-faire against the Fair Deal, President Obama is trying to have the ghost of TR fighting squarely on his side.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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