What Obama Would Say If He Were the Teddy Roosevelt of Climate Change

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation. Let me add that the health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part….

President Obama is no Teddy Roosevelt, even though he’d like people to think he is.  Needless to say, the GOP front-runner is no Roosevelt either (see Romney: I Don’t Know ‘What The Purpose is’ of Public Lands — a line that would set the Lion spinning.)

Roosevelt was a true progressive.  In his famous, “New Nationalism” speech of 1910, he uttered the remarks that open this post along with these timeless statements:

I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service….

Now, this means that our government, national and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests….

There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done….

The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.

Obama has turned out to be “the most moderate Democratic president since World War II.”  Nonetheless, back in December, Obama delivered a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, because it was where Roosevelt gave his 1910 speech.  Obama gave a good speech, as far as it went, focused on “the best way to restore growth and prosperity, restore balance, restore fairness”:

This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement. Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years.

And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.  I am here to say they are wrong. 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 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values.

We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country. We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.

The rhetoric is good, with simple words and repetition, though it still lacks a soaring metaphor — no, “stacked the deck” is too hackneyed to count.

But obviously restoring this too-narrow version of prosperity is most decidedly not the defining issue of our time.  Indeed, Obama himself knows that.  Hard to believe but it was only 3 years ago, April 2009, where Obama said these words at a wind tower production facility in Iowa:

Now, the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy.  The choice we face is between prosperity and decline. We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy.  We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects. We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity:  The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy.

the bulk of our efforts must focus on unleashing a new, clean-energy economy that will begin to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, will cut our carbon pollution by about 80 percent by 2050, and create millions of new jobs right here in America….


What’s truly sad is not merely that Obama failed to achieve this or failed to give even one single national primetime address on the defining issue of our time.  What’s really sad is that he went to Osawatomie to channel Teddy Roosevelt and draw direct comparisons to him, but wouldn’t even go as far as Roosevelt did a century ago in speaking out on the need for conservation and environmental protection to be an integral part of prosperity and a progressive agenda.

In Osawatomie, Roosevelt said:

Moreover, I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few, and here again is another case in which I am accused of taking a revolutionary attitude. People forget now that one hundred years ago there were public men of good character who advocated the nation selling its public lands in great quantities, so that the nation could get the most money out of it, and giving it to the men who could cultivate it for their own uses. We took the proper democratic ground that the land should be granted in small sections to the men who were actually to till it and live on it.

Now, with the water-power with the forests, with the mines, we are brought face to face with the fact that there are many people who will go with us in conserving the resources only if they are to be allowed to exploit them for their benefit. That is one of the fundamental reasons why the special interest should be driven out of politics.

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation. Let me add that the health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part.

Can you even imagine Obama uttering words like that?  Heck, in the State of the Union, he said, “This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” including oil and gas.

Even Roosevelt understood that the defining issue of our time is always the same —  “leaving this land even a better land for our descendents than it is for us.”  We aren’t doing that now, not even close:

Here are some more quotes Obama can stick into future speeches if he ever really wants to channel Teddy Roosevelt:

  • The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.
  • If in a given community unchecked popular rule means unlimited waste and destruction of the natural resources—soil, fertility, waterpower, forests, game, wild-life generally—which by right belong as much to subsequent generations as to the present generation, then it is sure proof that the present generation is not yet really fit for self-control, that it is not yet really fit to exercise the high and responsible privilege of a rule which shall be both by the people and for the people. The term “for the people” must always include the people unborn as well as the people now alive, or the democratic ideal is not realized.
  • The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.
  • The United States at this moment occupies a lamentable position as being perhaps the chief offender among civilized nations in permitting the destruction and pollution of nature. Our whole modern civilization is at fault in the matter. But we in America are probably most at fault … We treasure pictures and sculpture. We regard Attic temples and Roman triumphal arches and Gothic cathedrals as of priceless value. But we are, as a whole, still in that low state of civilization where we do not understand that it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals’not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.
  • To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.

Hear!  Hear!  Or, rather, Speak! Speak!

16 Responses to What Obama Would Say If He Were the Teddy Roosevelt of Climate Change

  1. Peter SM says:

    TR was a indeed a modern progressive- that FDR, HS Truman and even LBJ can identify with.

    Obama- he cannot approach even Nixon’s standard. He is a true corporatist.

    The country has swung so far to the right over the last 32 years, that only the catastrophe of climate change can wake American culture up from its cheap consumption based inertia. And we all know by the time Americans realize that dramatic change has come to their lives- its way too late.

  2. Andy says:

    NPR has a show on the inability of politicians to mention climate change tonight at 7:00pm CST.

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    It remains a mystery to me why people keep expecting, or at least hoping, that Obama will be something that there has never been any reason to think that he is.

  4. M Tucker says:

    I’m not comfortable with describing President Obama as “the most moderate Democratic president since World War II” given the Health Care bill, DADT, and getting the hell out of Iraq, but he sure ain’t too interested in global warming. He treats it like his own personal ‘third rail’. It can only be mentioned in passing while he will promote green jobs and sustainable energy as economy boosters; not solutions to the most pressing challenge faced by modern civilization. I was fooled by his selection of John Holdren for Science Tsar and Chu for Energy Secretary. I should have known when he kept talking about “clean coal” but I was heavily influenced by what Holdren and Chu had advocated before they became part of the machine. Now, I’m guessing, those two are happy as baby clams with all the dithering, delaying and complete lack of messaging. What else can I conclude since they do not seem too disturbed by the Presidents position? But TR, if he were alive today, would not be silent about it. Given what he said about Taft in the 1912 election I imagine Teddy might even have a few choice names to call President Obama.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    So . . .

    What is an extended metaphor for AGW?
    What is an extended metaphor for clean energy?

    Which metaphor, what speech, can possibly turn Americans away from familiar, subsidized, profitable, well-marketed, fossil fuels and toward unfamiliar efficiency and renewables?

    Can we fashion some rhetorical tools right here? C’mon — what EXACTLY should the President say?

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Great quotes from TR.

    I remember that talk (just talke) from Obama, just two months later he would approve the 1st tar sands pipeline from Canada with the 2nd approved just a couple of months after that.

    While it might be nice to think of Obama using that same kind of talk as TR, based on his past actions with regard to climate change, that’s all it would be, talk.

    You can put lipstick on a pig…

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Obama is a moderate?
    Do you mean moderately extreme Republican?
    Unlike the really extreme Republicans on the other side?

    As Noam Chomsky said “We have a one party state with two factions.” Although George Carlin put it better “You have the illusion of choice”

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    Both of the Roosevelts betrayed fellow members of the 1% of their day, as did Jack Kennedy, to a lesser extent. This caused the Roosevelts in particular to be hated as turncoats by the bankers and industrialists of the day.

    The people running this country learned from that mistake, and make sure that future leaders of the Democratic Party are smart, but not too smart. Clinton and Obama are great talkers, but, like most who come from tough backgrounds, are dazzled by wealth.

    The Roosevelts knew the wealthy from the inside, from the drunken parties in the Hamptons, where decadent revelers ranted about taxes and the declining quality of the “help”. They were not impressed, and the general depravity of the super rich motivated their idealistic concerns.

    If someone arose from the rich now, he would be slammed down early in the game, via character assassination and shunning. If someone from outside the group challenges them- like Howard Dean- his destruction can become even more urgent. We’re in a tough spot when it comes to leadership, but we know one thing for sure: forget the Democratic Party. Our leader must arise directly from the people.

  9. Raul M. says:

    is it true that repubs are giving the people choices for the ones who are so good that they should be the ones saved in the new best storm shelter in DC.
    Sort of like the faithful giving the blank check, just knowing that they will do what is right for them.
    The choices seem to more and more go to who do we want to be saved rather that who will do what is right by the country now and for the future.
    Of course the issue will be even more dramatic as the weather becomes more dramatic.

  10. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    I’m reminded of a Jon Stewart line, “The Democrats have moved to the right of center, and the Republicans have moved into the insane asylum”. Unfortunately Chomsky, Carlin, and Stewart are all correct. Blatantly plagiarizing from an unknown commenter on another web site, “When fascism comes to America it will be dressed in the flag and carrying misspelled signs.”

  11. Dick Smith says:

    Bill McKibben showed that sustained harrassment of Obama on the pipeline–at his HQ, at his appearances, and at the White House–can work.

    Isn’t it time to apply that same sustained harassment to force him to add the words “global warming” and “climate change” to his working vocabulary.

    Obama’s refusal to do so is the single most important factor in the public’s complacency. Their president refuses to speak the truth to them.

  12. Raul M. says:

    Will their claims of being religiously saved increase as they approach the doors of the shelter?
    To show they should be physically saved and reassure those already in the shelter?
    Ward off those who might try to gain shelter when there is not enough extra space etc.?
    Are their comments to onlookers “go build your own shelter” taken as claims of ownership of the bestest storm shelter in the US as they close the doors behind
    Certainly, one could follow the leader and prepare a good storm shelter of ones own.

  13. Raul M. says:

    Meanwhile Professor Diddelyboo was right for two reasons that he couldn’t see the shoreline yet as they approached that state between Texas and Mississippi from the open water.
    For one the shore had actually retreated.
    And secondly with the increasing problem of UV rays he needed UV barrier contact lenses to protect what little eyesight he still had left.

  14. Roger S. says:

    This reminds me of how sad our situation is here in the United States, and how it wouldn’t have to be this way.

    Obama’s refusal to speak out about AGW allows millions of Americans to remain in comfortable denial, postponing a vitally needed response to this problem, while the fossil fuel industry plays on.

    It’s a total lack of leadership at a time when we critically need a leader. Come on Obama, you said you’d tackle it. Deliver!

  15. J4zonian says:

    I wouldn’t call him the most moderate either; I’d call him by far the most reactionary. The list of his betrayals to the principles that used to govern his party is too long to even come close to covering but here are a few: Telecom Immunity, Guantanamo, Black Sites, Keystone XL (waffling, tepid rhetoric and the wrong reasons for rejecting), NDAA, Vilsack and company through the revolving door, persecution of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning and Tim DeChristopher, Copenhagen, Mexico City, Durban … and then there’s his abdication on the most important issue ever to face humanity, in speeches, policy and example.

  16. J4zonian says:

    or to paraphrase Henry Ford, “You can have any color president you want, so long as he’s corporate.”