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Reagan Is Obama’s Touchstone

Memo Pad

Reagan Is Obama’s Touchstone


WASHINGTON — 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 40th 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.”

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. charleo1 January 24, 2013

    If indeed anything gets through Congress it will depend on a stitched together coalition of
    the Democratic minority, and a few Republicans that see their duty to Country over Party politics
    as the reason they are serving in Congress.

    1. Dominick Vila January 25, 2013

      Sadly, on the issue of gun control the likely outcome is that some Democrats from red states will side with Republicans and the new legislation, if there is one, will be so watered down it will be as unenforceable as those of years past.
      We may see some progress on immigration reform, the debt ceiling negotiations, and a few other issues, but intransigence is likely to continue. What will probably happen in a year or two is that the GOP focus will shift from Obama to potential Democratic candidates such as Hillary and Biden.

      1. charleo1 January 25, 2013

        Sure. I think the public is pretty sure they want to see something done about the gun issue.
        What Congress is actually capable of delivering, of course, is an entirely different issue.
        But I do think there has been this gnawing concern in the minds of a growing number of
        people, that emerges a bit stronger each time we have one of these mass slaughters.
        And, nothing is certain on this. But this last episode at Sandy Hook, seems to
        have jared people in a most profound way. That we like to think of ourselves as this big
        powerful Country, that can, if need be, enforce our will wherever necessary. But then,
        can’t figure out how to protect these small innocent children, and their teachers from this
        madman in possession of a weapon designed for use on the battlefield. And the usual
        bits of gun nutty, arguments about the Second Amendment, or jack booted government
        thugs coming to disarm a free people, are falling flat with a public that seems to be saying
        enough. So. I was glad to learn Senator Feinstein is presenting a bill today or soon. And
        the President is going to Nevada, and keep this issue front and center. Well, we’ll see.

  2. FredAppell January 24, 2013

    Reagan had the luxury of not having to deal with 24-hour news cycles and hyper-partisan radio personalities. If Americans were more aware of what was going on at the time, Reagan might not be the beacon of conservatism that he has become. Obama and his last 3 predecessors have had to battle the constant barrage of media while trying to govern effectively, not an easy thing to do by any measure.
    The current atmosphere of our politics coupled with the general mood of Americans has created an extraordinary challenge for President Obama. Historically, presidents have had more success in their second terms. Hopefully President Obama will use his first term as a learning experience that will help him to be stronger and wiser in being able to deal with a stubborn and insular congress. Obama has a rare opportunity to build an everlasting positive legacy that will outshine any of his predecessors.

    1. Dominick Vila January 25, 2013

      With the exception of trickle down economics, a focus on deregulation, and a dismal foreign policy, Reagan was more moderate than a lot of people think. In fact, if he was a GOP candidate today he would be labeled a RINO.

      1. FredAppell January 25, 2013

        So true and yet every time a conservative invokes Reagan the Messiah’s name (sarcasm), they receive tremendous applause. The guy was a disloyal scum bag who outed so-called friends of his during the whole Red Menace scare. He ruined so many lives then and he continued doing so as POTUS. In other words, Reagan was a hack in both his careers.

  3. Ed January 25, 2013

    Ronald Reagan was one of our most POPULAR presidents. The same could be said for Adolf Hitler for the first 6 years of his reign. Unfortunately Reagan started us down a path which has led us to the morass we are not struggling with. That’s what happens when voters fall for personality rather than ideas.

  4. dslocum January 25, 2013

    Thank goodness, the Reagan era is ending. He emptied the mental institutions into the street, setting the stage for the mass shootings that have occurred since. He also set back education by eliminating many, many reading specialists positions. (But educators are blamed for poor school performance.) In my book, Reagan was an appealling and folksy schmoozer, but a very poor president !

    1. FredAppell January 25, 2013

      Ironically, it was a person with mental illness that shot Reagan in the first place. I can assure you that if I was the most powerful man in the world and I survived a shooting committed by someone with mental illness the outcome would be much different. I certainly would at the very least make sure that those institutions not only remain functioning but I would also increase their funding.

  5. William January 25, 2013

    Reagan was the first to attack unions, raised the age for Social Security, supported Iraq and it’s leader, the author of the trickle down theory. Reagan is not my hero and he never will be.

  6. Zenda Watford January 25, 2013

    People can’t seem to grasp that Globalization is what brought us to where we are . When Globalization was coming in our banks argued that ,they needed less regulation ,so they could compete with overseas banks , that didn’t have the same regulations . Carter was the first to relax some regulations for our banks .Then each president after relaxed some until Bush he relaxed so many it collapsed the economy , so each share some blame but ask yourself why the Republicans are still pushing deregulation. It is very much a big part of their platform ! The great depression also had the same factors, Deregulation and huge tax breaks for the rich . You can not, look things up on the internet either , you need to go to an on line encyclopedia of your choice for facts only !

  7. joeham1 January 25, 2013

    Reagan’s policies and ability to compromise lead to 5% unemployment and prosperity. He understood the principals of capitalism, and through the democrats passed legislation that pulled us out of 10% unemployment and 21% interest rates!

    He didn’t blame or demonize! Democrats and Republicans worked together and our economy created over 20 million jobs during his term!

    Today Democrats dismiss him or call him a moderate or whatever. The bottom line is he was a leader. The gridlock today that is only blamed on the GOP has stalled progress and lead to a divide that has most Americans scared for the future.

    Not one Democrat I have talked to wants to hold our President accountable for the biggest farce we have been through in the last 4 years. The so called “Balanced Approach” to cutting the deficit increased taxes and increased the deficit 4 trillion!!! (CBO Jan 4 2013)

    When the word austerity is brought up people talk about who will get hurt. However, if we don’t cut spending during The President term we will ALL be hurt!

    We can keep felling fuzzy and warm when the President speeks or when The Natioanla Memo demonizes the right. Or we can be fare minded and understand that both parties top to bottom are to blame and we need both of them to stop the madness!

  8. onedonewong January 25, 2013

    Moderate left?? Hardly Barak’s childhood idol and now as president has always been Hitler Mayo and Stalin

  9. Gilbert January 26, 2013

    Also, Reagan did not have two WARS on his hands. People conveniently leave that significant detail out of the Reagan conversation. Reagan left office under the cloud of scandal… Remember the Iran/Contra Scandal and all the crack that hit the streets of American cities.??? That was all part of Reagan’s responsiblity. Funny how no one seems to remember how the street-level price of a kilo of cocaine fell from $50,000 at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency to $14,000 by the time he left office,{due to increased abundance and re-supply}. I would think these are important factors in evaluating Reagan’s tenure. Also, the national debt multiplied by a factor of 4, even without war-time spending. How is it that Ronald Reagan is even being considered for anything note-worthy???

  10. Barbara January 26, 2013

    What in the world was so wonderful about Reagan? I am old enough to remember his presidency
    very well. He already had Alzheimer while still in office. Reporters made fun of his forgetfulness.
    He had a wife that was into astronomy and told him what to do. I’m not sure which one of them
    was worse. I can’t think of a thing to brag about when he was president. Republicans are counting
    on the fact that you have to be over 60 to actually have paid attention to him. And lets not even
    mention the Iran/Contra business or Ollie North.


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