No. 111

Barack Obama embraces Republican icons – Abe and Ike and Teddy

STONE the crows! Just who is running in the Republican primaries? Last time I looked, Mitt and Rick and Newt were still there but so it seems were Ronny and Abe Teddy and Ike.

Last week, Governor Santorum adopted the memory of the last loved Republican – Ronald Reagan during the Illinois primary.[i]

And, inevitably, in Illinois Abraham Lincoln was also invoked, but by President Obama.

Nice touch. No Republican would be dumb enough to criticise a black president whose wife is descended from slaves from claiming the mantle of the Republican author of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But, while Barack Obama contrasted the slanging and sneering in the GOP field with Lincoln’s hope that the “better angels of our nature” would prevail in politics, he had a broader purpose.[ii] The president is positioning himself as the heir of the great Republican nation builders. Thus he appealed to Lincoln the nation-builder rather than war leader:

Lincoln, the first Republican President, knew that if we as a nation through our federal government didn’t act to facilitate these things, then they likely wouldn’t happen and, as a result, we’d all be worse off. He understood that we are a people that take great pride in our self-reliance and our independence but that we are also one nation and one people, and that we rise or fall together.

He did the same with Dwight D Eisenhower who started the interstate system with public money. The president’s point is that nation builders are uniters:

And here’s the thing:  That same spirit of common purpose, that desperate desire to pull the country together and focus on what needs to get done in a serious way, that spirit still exists today – maybe not in Washington, but (sic) exists here in Chicago.  It exists out there in America.  Our politics may be divided.  But most Americans still understand we are greater together and that no matter who we are or where we come from, we rise or fall as one nation and one people. And that’s what’s at stake. That’s what’s at stake in this election.[iii]

This is more than a bit rich. Barack Obama has tried and failed to force Congress to fall in behind him in the national interest on a whole raft of legislation. And he, like George Bush before him, is spending money the country does not have.

But with the Republicans arguing among themselves, Obama is able to get away with rhetorical murder, such as the way he positioned himself as the spending cutter in the tradition of yet another conservative president, the first one.

As the president put it in September, “None of the changes I’m proposing are easy or politically convenient.  It’s always more popular to promise the moon and leave the bill for after the next election or the election after that.  That’s been true since our founding.  George Washington grappled with this problem.” [iv]

But Barack Obama is doing more than claiming Republican precedent for nation building and spending reduction; he is also presenting himself as the heir of a GOP tradition of social justice. Which is why he also claims kinship with Teddy Roosevelt, who led a reforming faction of Republicans that tea partiers today would want to expel.

Teddy understood capitalism only works when all the playing fields are level, the umpires straight and teams not stacked with patronage players. That is why he broke up oligopolies and fought city machines, mainly Democrat, that used taxes as a source of patronage in employment and contracts.

It’s a message President Obama is happy to embrace.

Here’s what President Roosevelt, channelling Father Abraham told the people of Osawatomie Kansas in August 1910.

In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now. [v]

And here’s what President Obama told their descendants in December:

I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t one percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them. [vi]

But from whom? Well how about the Republican candidates who are being pushed into tax cutting and moralising to please a socially conservative base that would rather be right than win?

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom acknowledged the problem on Thursday; that what it will take to win the primaries is what will jeopardise the general, when he said, “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.” [vii]

Gosh, I wonder how many million times that message will be used if Governor Romney wins the nomination?

Of course it could all blow up for Barack Obama. The student-worker coalition that served him so well in’08 is fractured. As Craig McMurtrie demonstrated last week, what was once the industrial heartland of unionised Democrats is still doing it tough.[viii] And the President is so worried about the younger siblings of the undergraduates who turned out for him last time that he is campaigning on university fees, saying they are too high and somebody should do something about it. [ix]

And while last time in the depth of the Global Financial Crisis a canine’s cowboy could have won for the Democrats this year the economy is Barack Obama’s problem.

But if he can run on a unity ticket, presenting the other side as extremists out of step with American values and the traditions of the GOP he will start the campaign stronger than his record in office may merit.

Which is why he is invoking Abe and Teddy and Dwight.

Funny, there is no mention of Dick; still it’s a long time to November.


[i] Nick O’Malley, “Candidates summon friendly ghost back into the saddle,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 21

[ii] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4 1861 @ http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp recovered on March 21

[iii] The White House, “Remarks by the President at a campaign event,” March 16 @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/16/remarks-president-campaign-event recovered on March 21

[iv] The White House, “Remarks by the President on economic growth and deficit reduction,” September 19 2011 @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/19/remarks-president-economic-growth-and-deficit-reduction recovered on March 21

[v] President Theodore Roosevelt, Osawatomie Address, August 31 1910 @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/12/06/archives-president-teddy-roosevelts-new-nationalism-speech recovered on March 23

[vi] The White House, “Remarks by the President on the economy at Osawatomie Kansas, December 6 2011,” @ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/06/remarks-president-economy-osawatomie-kansas recovered on March 23

[vii] Tom Cohen, “Romney’s big day marred by Etch a Sketch remark,” CNN, March 22 @ http://edition.cnn.com/2012/03/21/politics/campaign-wrap/ recovered on March 23

[viii] Craig McMurtrie, “Scranton, a microcosm of working America,” Lateline, March 21 @ http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3460799.htm

[ix] David Nakamura and Daniel de Vise, “Obama outlines incentive plan to rein in college tuition costs,” Washington Post, January 28

'2012