Exactly 110 years ago today, on September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office after William McKinley succumbed to an assassin’s bullets. The political operators who had put Roosevelt in the vice presidency to dampen his efforts at reform were not pleased. “Now look!” exclaimed Senator Mark Hanna, a fellow Republican, but a consummate insider. “That damned cowboy is President of the United States.”
In office, Roosevelt was not as wild as his critics had feared, but he was a forceful leader. Barack Obama shares some characteristics with Roosevelt—both wrote popular books and won the Nobel Peace Prize—but they are also very different. Roosevelt won the Congressional Medal of Honor, too, for capturing enemy fortifications in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Obama, in his Cuban encounter, proved unable to close the Guantanamo prison, defended only by a Congress of his own party.
Obama’s supporters probably would like to see a leadership style that is more Medal of Honor and less Peace Prize. Indeed, Roosevelt’s experience has some lessons to offer.
Don’t be afraid to assign blame
Following the Panic of 1907, Roosevelt was not shy about telling the nation whom he held responsible: the “malefactors of great wealth.” “I regard this contest,” he continued in a Provincetown speech, “as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.” (This even though the Panic of 1907 featured a bailout by, rather than of, Wall Street bankers.) Obama has not offered any similarly clear narrative about the financial crisis he inherited, and he has put Wall Streeters in charge of the recovery.
Don’t wait on Congress
Roosevelt would probably not have acceded meekly to a Congress that declined his request to address it on a given day. After acting unilaterally to promote Panama’s separation from Colombia, he boasted, “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on, the Canal Zone does too.” There are limits, of course, to what a president can accomplish in the face of implacable negativity from the opposition party, but Roosevelt had advice for that situation, too. “Do what you can,” he said, “with what you have, where you are.” You never know until you try, and you cannot lead Congress from behind.
Understand the bully pulpit—and the bully
Roosevelt famously pronounced the presidency a “bully pulpit.” This did not mean a pulpit from which to bully. He used the word as an emphatic synonym for “good,” so it was just an endorsement of the communicative power of the position. Roosevelt, like Obama, was a great speaker, who liked to take his case to the American people by speaking to them directly. But Roosevelt understood bullies, too, whether in the schoolyard or the Houses of Congress. He understood that bullies perceive compromise as weakness and that circumstances may allow for only one resolution. “Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting,” he counseled, “but never hit soft.”
Kermit Roosevelt is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the great-great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.