Reagan Is Obama's Touchstone

Understanding a Presidency

To understand how Barack Obama sees himself and his presidency, don't look to Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Obama's role model is Ronald Reagan -- and that is just what Obama told us before he was first elected.

Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment -- in Obama's case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the fortieth president's political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama's inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history. Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.

And like Reagan, Obama seeks to enact his program not by getting the opposition party's leaders to support him but by winning over a minority of the less doctrinaire Republicans -- especially representatives from the Northeast, West Coast and parts of the Midwest who sense where the political winds in their regions are blowing.

The relationship of Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill is often misrepresented. The Gipper and Tip got along OK, but that's not how Reagan got most of his bills passed. O'Neill opposed most of what Reagan wanted. Reagan didn't let this stop him and the media at the time didn't condemn Reagan for failing to negotiate O'Neill's stamp of approval. Instead, Reagan pushed through his measures with the support of a minority of Democrats, most of them conservatives and moderates from the South, who knew their part of the country was moving Reagan's way.

And Obama, like Reagan, is arguing that this moment demands a new approach to foreign policy. But if Reagan's slogan was "peace through strength," Obama's might be summarized as strength through peace.

Reagan took office at a moment when Americans felt weak abroad, so a majority welcomed his defense buildup and his aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric. Obama knows that Americans now see the war in Iraq as a mistake and the war in Afghanistan as having run its course. They sense that the nation's long-term power depends on rebuilding at home. Thus Obama's insistence "that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."

Obama's admiration for Reagan's achievements, if not for his policies or ideology, has been on the record for a long time. Almost exactly five years before this week's inaugural, on January 15, 2008, Obama gave an interview to the Reno (Nevada) Gazette-Journal where he expressed his respect for his predecessor's style of leadership.

At the time, his mild knock on Bill Clinton was the big news, since Obama was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But with the 2012 election sealing the Clinton-Obama alliance, the more important revelation of the interview can come into clearer focus.

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. ... He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

"I think we are in one of those times right now," Obama went on, "where people feel like things as they are going aren't working, that we're bogged down in the same arguments that we've been having and they're not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out."

The Republican approach was not fully played out politically after 2008 because the depth of the country's economic troubles kept discontent high and helped the GOP to its 2010 midterm victory. But in 2012, voters had the choice of confirming their 2008 decision to move toward the center-left, or ratifying 2010's verdict on behalf of the right. They chose Obama and the new progressive course.

Republicans in Congress now, like Democrats in the Reagan years, are coming to terms with a country that wants to move in a new direction. Like Tip O'Neill, Speaker John Boehner is having trouble holding his troops together.

Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn't keep winning simply by invoking FDR's legacy. Paradoxically, in following Reagan's political lead, Obama is setting out to prove that the Reagan era is finally over. 

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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It would be a shame, if seeking his own legacy, Obama would give way to the austerity hawks and visionless folk who can't see any future for the U.S.  They are so wedded to the past and their own possessiveness that they seem to  automatically oppose any new initiatives. The next big tests will come on spending priorities and the national debt, the wasteful defense budget that only seems to benefit arms manufacturers and military contractors, implementation of health care reform, and the biggest issue of all: immigration and paths to citizenship for the undocumented. If we lose the momentum to grow our economy and our support for the future, he will leave behind only a failed legacy. The only part of Reaganism that I would like to see is more of the 'great communicator.'

Mr. Dionne, with all due respect, you'll recall that almost half of this nation did not vote for Mr. Obama. He believes he has a mandate to go far left but most people that I know are moderates and independents. This will be his undoing and final legacy.

President Reagan had a strong sense of what real people needed and wanted. Mr. Obama's inauguration speech focused on climate change. An important issue, yes, but not what we have on our minds as we struggle with a huge national debt, chronic unemployment and underemployment and a struggling economy.

Bill Clinton had the wisdom to move toward the center after his re-election. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is still caught up in trying the same solutions for long-term problems without learning much. He disingenuously tells us he wants to work with the GOP but when it comes to negotiating, he doesn't compromise at all. This leads me to think he's an insincere liar.

We still have a two-party system in this country and we need the yin and the yang. Mr. Reagan was a better leader than Mr. Obama could ever hope to be because he was willing to compromise with Tip O'Neill and other Democrats. In fact, with Senator Bob Dole's help, a Social Security crisis in the early '80s was averted. Have we heard Mr. Obama sound willing to even consider Social Security reforms? No. He and his chronies, including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, hold on to their rigid ideas and refuse to touch any entitlement programs in a significant way.

Our country is going bankrupt and the Democrats are rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. What would Ronald Reagan do in this situation? He'd see how people are upset with deficit spending and he'd take steps to solve the problem.

I agree with Lisa that this article proffers a very wishful interpretation of an election in which Romney did far better than he deserved to.

While I would certainly agree that POB 2nd Inaugural Address was quite progressive, one could also interpret the momentum in the country as swinging center-left because the Republican party was too far right that moderates and independents on both sides would seem "to the left".However, in actuality, at least in the first term, the "liberal" Obama that many on the left thought they had elected actually turned out to be more moderate. Secondly, I must disagree with Lisa's characterization that POB has been rigid and uncompromising. POB was practically rubber jelly in negotiations with the Republican Party in his first term with all kinds of terrible concessions at the start of negotiations that left very little on the table. I think what the nation would recall instead is that there was an obstructionist Republican Party intent on "making POB a one-term president." We did not get into a debacle over the debt ceiling because POB was uncompromising, but because the Mitch McConnell thought it was a "hostage worth taking." And we ended up with sequestration precisely because both sides could not come to terms, agreed on a deadline to prevent bi-lateral circumstances that neither side wanted, then ran out the clock and kick the issue down the road for 3 months. That was the "grand bargain" or pact that the executive and legislative branches were able to engineer. The country is still waiting for "what's next." And it's not as partisan as it sounds. It's as obstructionist as we've seen and as ideologically and incompetently driven as before. I'm pretty sure everyone would like to see something else.

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).