Mr. Obama, you're no Ronald Reagan

Reflections on how presidents can be game changers, and why Reagan was able to pull off what Obama can only dream about.

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William F. Buckley and President Ronald Reagan in 1986. (White House)

Reflections on how presidents can be game changers, and why Reagan was able to pull off what Obama can only dream about.

When can you tell a President has been successful?

One sign is that people in both parties say nice things about them. Think of all the Democrats who say kind things about Abe Lincoln or Republicans who quote John F. Kennedy. Another sign is that time has vindicated the divisive stands they took on important issues during their administrations.

By both of these standards, Ronald Reagan’s presidency has hit iconic status. The Republican Party is as much Reagan’s party as Lincoln’s, and even liberal historians like Richard Reeves and Sean Wilentz acknowledge his lasting impact and legacy. So does President Obama, who noted that Reagan was a “transformative” president who “changed the trajectory” of America.

How did Reagan do it?  By taking strong, sometimes divisive stands on important issues that have stood the test of time.

Begin with facing down the Soviet Union.  When he took office Moscow controlled eastern Europe, intimidated western Europe, and was expanding its reach throughout the Third World.   America responded with a policy designed to ease tensions through diplomacy and arms control called détente.   In the name of détente President Ford declined to meet with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, fearing it would anger Moscow.

Reagan would have none of it.  Asked his position on the Cold War, he said, "We win and they lose."  Reduce tensions?  Reagan deliberately raised them, casting the conflict in moral terms, arguing that America and western democracy were good, communism was evil, and the Soviet Union in particular was "an evil empire."  Liberal pundit Michael Kinsley recently wrote, "This was no less than the truth and he was right to say it.   But at the time Henry Steele Commager called the Evil Empire address "the worst speech in American history."

Liberals back then confidently predicted that Reagan's policy would result in either a "never-ending arms race" or all out nuclear war (remember Target: Seattle?).   One of the best selling non-fiction books in the 1980s was Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, which explained in graphic detail the devastation nuclear war would bring to the planet and those still living on it.  The progressive alternative to Reagan's arms build-up was called the "nuclear freeze" that simply stopped further arms deployment.  Millions marched against Reagan and for the Freeze throughout America and Europe.  They marched for it in Moscow, too.  Why not?  It was the Soviet negotiating position. 

When all was said and done, Reagan got his way, the arms race did not proliferate, and the planet did not explode.  Communism did, and the Berlin Wall fell down. 

Reagan's second major contention, on which his entire economic program of tax cuts, deregulation, and domestic spending restraint was based, is that economic growth flows not from the benevolent hand of government, but the fertile imaginations of entrepreneurs.  His capitalism-is-good gospel was best explained in Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder's 1981 bestseller written in Bruce Chapman's apartment above Seattle's Pike Place Market. Reagan's beliefs put him squarely at odds with western thinkers here and in Europe who embraced a "third way" of blending free enterprise with socialism.  Their tonic was packaged in America as "industrial planning" and it went the way of Walter Mondale.    

But what Obama probably finds most relevant about Reagan today was his ability to make the country believe again in the future. Many, many smart people in politics, the media, academia, and even the corporate world in the 70s and 80s believed that America’s best days were in the rear view mirror and that we were now living in "an era of limits."

And no wonder.  America had lost a war, joblessness was rising, welfare programs weren’t working, neither was forced busing, the price of gasoline was spiking (when it was even available), inflation was spiraling, and interest rates were skyrocketing. Compare the soaring eloquence of JFK with Jimmy Carter’ somber, stern lectures, whose the tone alone captures the downcast mood of the country’s leaders.

Reagan’s sunny optimism about better days ahead struck these elites as shallow, Norman Rockwellian nostalgia.  They rolled their eyes at the old man’s simplistic view of life and kept publishing cover stories like the one in Time asking "Where Have all the Heroes Gone?"  "They’re all around us," Reagan responded.  More eye rolling.  But the old man had it right.  Better days were ahead. Reagan believed in the future and he believed in freedom because he thought that people can manage their affairs far better than a distant government.

Obviously Obama has a different philosophy, just as FDR had a different philosophy from Reagan, who strongly admired Roosevelt.  But like Reagan, he wants to “change the trajectory” of the country.  Here is why that probably won't happen.  FDR and Reagan both defined and led an entire political movement.  For FDR it was New Deal Liberalism.  For Reagan,  American Conservatism.  Reagan sold most Americans on his “peace through strength” foreign policy.  He persuaded them to support his three-year tax cut program and got it through a Congress partly controlled by the other party.

But all talk of President Obama leading another great liberal wave in American politics has subsided.  For all his eloquence, Obama was never able to sell the American people on his health care bill.  He had to ram it through on a purely partisan vote, and its future is uncertain. What’s left of his progressive agenda lies in ruins, including the cap-and-trade bill, an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants, another big spending bill, and the replacement of secret ballots in union elections with "card check."  

If the president tacks rightward toward the center, as Bill Clinton did after being rattled by the Republican earthquake in the ’94 mid-terms, he might be re-elected.  But so far, his major contribution to"“changing the trajectory" of American politics was to unite an opposition party that had been on life-support, and bring it roaring back to life two years later with more seats in the US House than it's had since 1948, and more seats in state legislatures since 1928.

Excessive liberalism in the 70s and a lousy economy begat the tax revolt which helped Reagan win the White House.   Excessive liberalism and a lousy economy a generation later begat the Tea Party movement and brought Reaganism back to life.

Ronald Reagan died at 93, but this week, the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, the man lives on.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.