Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson in Office

Article excerpt


With a few notable exceptions, presidents who served in the 19th century had a rather limited view of the office's powers and of their ability to reshape the nation.

Then we entered a new century, and along came Theodore Roosevelt.

He not only had a larger-than-life personality but also took it upon himself to energize government and give it an activist role, especially in environmental and regulatory policy. In doing so, he ushered in an era of progressive governance that lasted through the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

While the chief executives, especially Roosevelt and Wilson, have been the subject of many individual biographies, they haven't often been analyzed as a group. University of Notre Dame political scientist Peri E. Arnold has made an important contribution to our understanding of that era with his scholarly but quite readable, book Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson, 1901-16.

Mr. Arnold contends that before Roosevelt, presidents were little more than managers of unruly factions within decentralized mass parties. By contrast, Roosevelt "took the presidency to be a platform for his own policy preferences. Taft and Wilson built upon what Roosevelt started.

Although Mr. Arnold doesn't attempt to do full-scale biographies of the three presidents, he effectively uses their past experiences as a guide to their actions while in the Oval Office.

Roosevelt took a reformist approach to all of his pre-presidential jobs and was intent on shaking up what he perceived as staid and overly passive bureaucratic entities. Mr. Arnold shows how Roosevelt's willingness to go around the flag officers and talk to lower-level officers while assistant secretary of the Navy helped him succeed in his efforts to strengthen and modernize the Navy and would be his modus operandi as president.

As president, he often intervened in the workings of bureaucracy in a way that undermined the authority of his subordinates. For him, it was all about attaining a progressive outcome, political niceties and chains of command be damned.

His love of dramatic flourishes and willingness to use the presidency as a bully pulpit (a phrase he coined) also helped him achieve his goals. To make a point about his vision of the United States' expanded role in the world, he ordered the Atlantic fleet to sail around the world, via the West Coast and Japan (at a time of strained relations with that nation) a move the author describes as a gesture of operatic grandeur. …