Is TR Overrated?

July 1, 2021 4:15 p.m.

TPM Reader TL follows up on my discussion yesterday of Teddy Roosevelt and where he fits in the ranking of US Presidents, specifically whether the seemingly consistent decision to place him 4th is rating him too high. TL makes what I think is probably the best case that can be made, and it’s a pretty good one. It focuses on the fact that Roosevelt is in many ways the first modern President. He’s the first American President who approached the job in a way that would be fundamentally recognizable to us today.

I agree with you to some extent on TR. I can think of several presidents who probably should out rank him and 4th is a bit high. But …

The thing about him is that he was the first modern president. A partial list of why I say this:

• He was the first president to fully realize how to us modern mass media. I think he came on this instinctively. When he saw how people responded to his personality, he played it up for all it was worth. And he did it while he was in office; most revered or popular presidents before him had to be in a major crisis or retired.

• His willingness to campaign for legislation with mass publics while it was pending. Before him presidents did most of that by pressuring members of Congress.

• His willingness to use executive actions to achieve goals. Here the list reads like other modern presidents: unilateral action in foreign policy (the “Great White Fleet”, the initiation of negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War, ect.), the first real use of presidential power to handle economic disputes (his threat to use the army to operate the coal mines, his evocation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act), his decision to use laws to take independent action (“Is there anything in the law that prevents me from declaring an area a wildlife refuge?” “No, Mr. President” “Good, then i order that Pelican Island will be the first one.”). The list goes on and on.

• His willingness to assert American power in world affairs. This aspect of his presidency is more equivocal, but there isn’t any real question of that he was the first president to really flex US power.

There are many things about his presidency that are questionable. There’s no doubt that, despite his willingness to take some steps toward recognizing racial inequalities, he was a white supremacist. He could also be reckless in foreign affairs. His is a mixed legacy, but our ideas of the presidency and what it should do were changed forever by TR.

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