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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
13 Jul 2012
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The Affordable Care Act: Decision Effects

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Barack Obama Plays the Teddy Roosevelt Card a Little Late


When in doubt, wheel on Teddy Roosevelt. It's article one in every Democratic president's playbook. Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909. He was manly; he ranched in North Dakota and explored the Amazon. He was a rabid imperialist, charging up San Juan Hill and sending the Great White Fleet round the world. And he loved the wilderness — so long as it was suitably cleansed of Indians. "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians," he wrote in "The Winning of the West," "but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

When necessary, he could play the populist rabble-rouser's card, flaying the corporations, railing against "the malefactors of great wealth." But on Roosevelt's watch modern corporate America came of age.

Lyndon B. Johnson loved Roosevelt for his "toughness." Draft-dodging Bill Clinton invoked Roosevelt as his ideal. And now Obama has wheeled out Roosevelt as his role model in denouncing those destroying the supposed guarantee of the American Way — every citizen gets a fair shake at making it into the safe harbor of "the middle class." Last month, Obama did his own reprise on the Great White Fleet, opening a new U.S. marine base in Australia and flexing his muscles at China.

Then on Tuesday, in Osawatomie, Kan. — where Roosevelt attempted a political comeback in 1910 — Obama told a crowd of 1,200: "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 and secure their retirement."

He went on: "There are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that's happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess."

Obama and his campaign advisers are obviously betting that there won't be any excessive snickering at the sight of a president who is blithely denying that, during the worst economic crisis in 70 years, his economic team — Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Chief Economic Adviser Lawrence Summers — wasn't determined to "return to the same practices that got us into this mess" and impede any serious economic reform of the institutions and practices that prompted the great crash of 2008.

Amid the Republicans' efforts to force savage cuts in the social safety net, Obama could have played the populist card back at the start of August. But he blinked. Now four months later, there's the Occupy Wall Street movement eager to remind Americans that in practice, as opposed to rhetoric, Obama has been a doughty protector of the one percent.

Three weeks ago, they heckled him fiercely in New Hampshire. But of course, Republicans aren't going to be attacking Obama as the pawn of the bankers. They favor the absurd script that designates him as a closet commie, scheming night and day to bring the most bloodthirsty scenarios of Karl Marx to fruition. So from their point of view, the Osawatomie speech was vindication of all their most lurid charges.

Ever the trimmer, Obama was obviously aware that with this lunge into rhetorical populism he was exposing himself to just such charges. Amid his execrations against Republicans for not supporting the Democrats' effort to extend the 2 percent reduction in the payroll tax, he suddenly threw in a homage to deficit reduction, thus doing a mini-reprise on his collapse in August. The irony is that the continued reduction on the payroll tax Obama is campaigning for means that the Social Security fund is getting 2 percent less. Even though the missing 2 percent is supposedly meant to be replaced by money from elsewhere in the federal budget, the drop in Social Security revenues will allow those urging "reform" of Social Security - i.e. its eventual destruction — to claim, ever more fiercely, that the system is in budgetary crisis.

A new poll out of Iowa (the state is scheduled to hold its Republican caucuses a month from now) shows Newt Gingrich well ahead of Mitt Romney. Even though he has many substantive flip-flops, Gingrich is certainly capable of making devastating fun of Obama's gyrations. After Osawatomie, he swiftly designated Obama as "President Food Stamp," thus highlighting Obama's failure to lower the unemployment rate significantly. His comments also supplied a racist subtext about Obama's supporters. It won't be hard for Gingrich to flip through Obama's speech and point out the contradictions. Obama at Osawatomie: "Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper." True — and Gingrich can point out that Democrats cheerfully voted through the trade pacts that allowed this to happen.

Final caution: Careful how you bet on the outcome in Iowa. The New York Times, which in concert with CBS, conducted that recent Iowa poll, points out that only "30 percent of likely caucus-goers say that they had been contacted by the Gingrich campaign, raising questions about his ability to identify his supporters and lure them to more than 1,600 precinct caucus locations on a winter night. By comparison, 60 percent say that they have been contacted by the (Ron) Paul campaign and 47 percent by the Romney campaign, underscoring a stealth operation that has been under way for months."

Thus far, Gingrich is running a shoestring operation. He'll have to weather possible adversity in Iowa and New Hampshire before getting to friendlier territory in South Carolina and Florida.

Read more:

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
Why are we having this discussion??

Obama has proven himself to be a MEGA fraud, sellout, and master B.S. slinger.

Those that voted for Obama have 'been had'

Obama is not worthy of my vote, so what to do now?

Ron Paul or we are toast
Comment: #1
Posted by: Soothsayer
Fri Dec 9, 2011 7:44 AM
The only use Obama has for populism or the OWS movement is to grudingly use their existence for campaign purposes only. If re-elected, he'll return to the centrist/moderate right wing of the corporate party.

Watching this sham channel populist rhetoric would be like watching Jerry Sandusky pretending to enjoy having sex with a woman.
Comment: #2
Posted by: michael nola
Fri Dec 9, 2011 4:35 PM
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