Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

Ronald Reagan Centennial

Reagan's Long Shadow Over Clinton, Obama, and Both Bushes

3 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size
At the outset of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama framed the setting of his candidacy as taking place at a time when Americans were eager for change. The year 2008 was a lot like 1960 when John F. Kennedy ran, Obama mused aloud. And like 1980, as well, he added, which was a more delicate point for a Democrat to make. But Obama didn't shy away from his thesis:

"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said on Jan. 14, 2008. "He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it ... he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Bill Clinton, who was easily provoked during the 2008 primary season, rose to the bait. So did his wife, who happened to be Obama's main challenger. The Clintons took a stab at trying to make Obama sound like a Republican apologist, but their gambit fell flat, and for good reason: Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and William Jefferson Clinton were, by that time, on the record for having praised Ronald Reagan in far more expansive language than Obama had ever employed.

But the Reagan Problem was not Hillary's alone. The 40th president of the United States, it can be safely said now, cast a long shadow over the office he once held. Democrats who are too dismissive of Reagan don't tend even to get to the White House. And the Republicans presidents who have come after Reagan -- both of them named George Bush -- have found his act a difficult one to follow.

"The latter President who may have been vexed most by Reagan was George H. W. Bush," says Les Francis, who worked in the congressional liaison office for Jimmy Carter -- the Democratic president unseated by Reagan. "When Bush was elected in 1988 it was largely seen as the advent of Reagan's third term. The trouble was, as decent and as well-prepared for the office as Bush 41 might have been, he suffered in comparison to Reagan."

Bush wasn't the last, as his son and namesake would learn. Nor was this perception entirely fair. To this day movement conservatives complain about the 1990 tax deal forged by Bush 41 with congressional Democrats. In his spirited, if quixotic 1992 Republican primary challenge to George Bush, Patrick Buchanan endlessly replaced the clips of Reagan's vice president assuring Americans at the 1988 Republican National Convention that they could read his lips: He'd agree to no new taxes.

Ultimately, Bush did agree to new taxes, just as Reagan himself had done in his second term. And although he may have saved the U.S. economy in the bargain, all the thanks Bush 41 got from his country and his political party is that both of his sons who went into politics openly modeled themselves as conservatives in the mold of ... Ronald Wilson Reagan.

"You know, Dick," George W. Bush once said to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, an ardent tax cutter and supply-sider, "I'm more like Ronald Reagan than my dad."

This was certainly true on tax policy, and it was true on certain social issues, such as abortion. It was not true when it came to war, however, and George W. Bush's uneasy audition as "Reagan's Disciple," fell short, in part, because Bush understood the "evil empire" part of the Soviet equation as well as the military buildup and the rhetorical braggadocio involved in daring the Russian president to tear down the Berlin Wall. Less understood by Bush was that Reagan's real desire was to show the world by example -- and not on the battlefield -- that democracy was superior to communism, and to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, which he eventually did.

Another Reagan legacy frequently misunderstood by Reagan's successors is a less happy one. Reagan ran in 1980 vowing to cut taxes, build up the military, and balance the federal budget. The appeal of supply side economics notwithstanding, these three goals were incompatible -- they simply defied mathematics -- and, predictably, Reagan was only able to accomplish the first two of these promises. But the unhappy fate of Walter Mondale, the Democrat' sacrificial lamb who lost 49 states to Reagan in 1984 after promising voters he would raise taxes, has set a bad example for all those who came later.

When things were going good, as they were in 1984, Walter Mondale's dour Midwestern honesty didn't have much of a chance against the unbridled California optimism of an incumbent president who assured voters in his ads, "It's morning again in America."

But this, too, is Reagan's legacy, one Barack Obama has learned only too well. And it's not necessarily a benevolent one.

"Reagan created an irresponsible economic model," says former Clinton aide Lanny J. Davis. "George Bush initially called it 'voodoo economics' and he was right. It plagues both parties today: We can borrow and spend, pay for two wars and massive bailouts, stimulus programs, pork, and national health care -- cut taxes all while adding three trillion more dollars to the national debt. Let our grandchildren pay the tab. This is immoral -- both parties today are complicit – and it all began with 'Morning in America' and Ronald Reagan."

Bill Clinton seemed to understand some of this. He put himself in a position to be sprinkled by the Reagan magic fairy dust, even while chipping away at some of the Reagan tax cuts. "Reagan and Clinton were both very upbeat people who entered office with a sagging economy," says Gettysburg College political scientist Shirley Anne Warshaw. "And both used their natural optimism to win reelection."

Her point hints at the central irony of Clinton's 2008 outburst over Obama's attempts to wrap himself in the Reagan cloak. One of the things that had always set Bill Clinton apart as a Democrat even before he ran for president in 1992 was how respectfully he spoke of Reagan in public. Until Clinton came along, Democratic Party leaders seemed intent on trying to morph Ronald Reagan into Herbert Hoover. This was ineffective, not to mention ahistorical. Hoover lost reelection in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan carried nearly 60 percent of the popular vote when he ran for reelection; and when Reagan departed the White House, he didn't leave a Great Depression and a dispirited GOP, he left behind a humming economy and a Republican Party that was more robust than at any time in the 20th century.

Bill Clinton, astute political animal that he was, realized he had no quarrel with Reagan. In fact, his first trip as president-elect was to Southern California where he paid a very public visit to Ronald Reagan's Century City office. And while running for reelection in 1996, Clinton's staff borrowed tapes from the Reagan library and actually emulated some of Reagan's campaign moves.

Now it's Obama's turn. As things turned tough, he too, sought solace in Reagan's example. The two men shared a terrible economy, sobering mid-term election results, and job approval ratings in the 40s. In hopes of turning things around, Obama has been reading a Reagan biography and quietly seeking some back-channel advice.

"Reagan's sunny disposition is something Obama is learning," says former White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein. The two men are quite different, but they seem to share a knack for getting a deal when they need one. And that, more than any other trait, may be the key to a successful presidency.

"Like Reagan, Obama is a great communicator," says savvy political commentator Bill Schneider. "Obama communicates an impressive intellect. Reagan communicated deep values. Both are seen as more ideological than they really are. Obama makes deals. He's a pragmatist. So was Reagan."

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.

140 Comments

Filter by:
tanksorrelhorse

None since has measured up to Reagan. Period

February 13 2011 at 11:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
grapost

Reagan committed TREASON by selling arms to the Iranians, an avowed enemy of ours, in direct violation of a Congressional and United Nations ban on such sales. He BROKE THE LAW! And this was just 7 years after the Iranians held 100 Americans hostage for 18 months. This would be like George Bush selling weapons to Al Quaida 7 years after 9/11. NUTS! George Bush Sr. had to PARDON the Reagan officals involved in this to prevent them from being convicted and sent to jail. What could be worse than a President selling weapons to our enemies? According to the NEOCONS, a BJ is alot worse!

AND HE SAID IT 52 TIMES!. Reagan committed perjury during his UNDER OATH court deposition during the investigation in the Iran/Contra crime. 52 times he replied to questions with "I don't know" or "I don't recall", in an arrogant and defiant refusal to answer properly to avoid prosecution. He had no problem remembering what to say on TV, but once in court he suddenly couldn't recall anything. He had a lot to LIE about.

This Conservative fantasy that Reagan was a great President is a joke! It's already agreed he was "out of it" during his second term with Altzheimers. His tax cut policies of Supply Side "trickle down" economics have been disavowed for 20 years now by David Stockman, the Budget Director Reagan assigned to write them, stating they never worked and ruined the economy. George Bush Sr even called it "voodoo economics." And the Savings And Loans Bank BILLION DOLLAR TAXPAYER BAILOUT was a direct result of his Administrations "hands off" approach to oversight and regulation of that industry. And history repeated itself with the Wall Street collapse in 2008 when George Bush did the exact same thing. And the deficit TRIPLED during his 8 years while all the time blasting wasteful spending.

The only thing Reagan excelled at, since he was an actor, was giving high hopes, inspiring, patriotic speeches just like in the movies. He was no intellectual giant either, admitting to an interviewer in the 1950's that he got mostly "C's" in school. And this myth that he brought down the Soviet Union because of increased Defense Spending is rediculous. Hey we out spent the Viet Cong too and they didn't collapse. We're outspending Al Quida and The Taliban and after 10 years they haven't collapsed either. Reagan was NO WHERE NEAR a great President.

February 07 2011 at 8:55 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to grapost's comment
jgr414155

After spending Millions of dollars, the midia and the United States Senate, investigated President Reagan and concluded that there was no connection to Reagan. The Saving and Loan debacle and the Keating 5, 4 who were Democrats and Mr. Mavrick J. McCain. Again another NOT Reagan conection.

February 08 2011 at 8:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
hamrheadmp

You cannot compare one to the other, We need another Reagan but we got a man that on a good day is tearing this country apart. While president Reagan was my president this man will never be mine. I will die before I accept him. I am 56 and as bad as some has been he is hands down the worse that I have seen. I personallydo not beleive that we will ever fix what he has screwed up. Maybe we deserved him. I had pride in my country and felt that God had nercy on us as a nation I feel just the opposite now. May God have mercy on us again.

February 06 2011 at 11:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
eugenegerard

Reagan had the most corrupt administration since Grant. Iran Contra was selling cocaine for money to buy arms. Our streets were flooded with coke. He had more people in his administration put in jail than any other. He sold out the middle class and started the mass exodus of jobs to foreign countries. He expedited the ruin of our industrial base to turn us into a service economy. Everything that is told good about Reagan is a complete distortion of truth. You can follow the demise of this country to his trickle-on economics and the push for "free trade" He destroyed our tariff system that built this country for two hundred years, sold our government lands for pennies on the dollar and aided in the demise of our educational system. Yep that was just a bit of what "good ol' Ronnie" did to this country. Do not believe the media. I lived through him and he changed this country for the worst.

February 06 2011 at 11:25 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Scott

I served in the Marine Corps under Reagan from 83'-87'. We admired him for his moral courage and steadfast leadership. That has'nt been equaled since. Everyone likes to say the 80's were about greed - sorry, that was the 90's. We outsourced all the well paid middle income overseas and no President has ever forced China to play fair in trade. Maybe if Reagan was President now he would have the courage to "turn that ship around" Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, did not. The current one seems more focused on his own agenda then real solutions to America's problems. Ronald Reagan was a great President. All you haters can't stand that historians have come to recognize that fact!

February 06 2011 at 11:12 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
kolachekid

Cannon says Reagan accomplished 2 of his 3 goals, one being tax cuts. Reagan's administration raised taxes in six of his 8 years in office. Only in his 1st and last year did he cut taxes. The Reagan myth is well funded and it will be difficult to separate fact from fiction as your article illustrates.

February 06 2011 at 11:12 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
dekiss

Reagan catered to the rich and certainly was not for the working class - he did a lot of damage to the unions - his first few weeks in office he showed his power by dismantling the Air Controllers Union enabling inexperienced workers to take their places. dekiss

February 06 2011 at 11:01 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dekiss's comment
dearthaircroi

As opposed to the air traffic controllers walking out on their jobs illigally and leaving a nation with no one to care for the safety of the airlines? Reagan gave them 3 days to come back to work . 1300 did the rest lost their jobs.

February 06 2011 at 11:36 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Deane

I had the great previlage to meet and interview President and Nancy Reagan long before he was even the Gov. of California. From the view point of many years in the media and interviewing the great and no-so great in the prosess, I can honestly say I never met a more gracious and intellegent individual than Ronald Reagan. Anyone who claims he was something less either has an agenda or lacks the ability to judge his/her fellow man. I only wish illness had not taken his mentality as early as it did. We could use his compasion and judgement today. There is no one his equal on the political scene at this point in time and that is our loss.

February 06 2011 at 10:56 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
ivyteainn

Reagan unleashed the corporate monster that has consumed America and destroyed our economy. He's not a hero; he's a traitor to the American worker. Why are we honoring this failed actor and failed President?

February 06 2011 at 10:56 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ivyteainn's comment
eugenegerard

I heard his speech on TV when he announced that we were going to get rid of our smokestack economy and move to a service economy. My only feeling at the time was we had a traitor to this country in the White House. I think I have been proven right.

February 06 2011 at 11:29 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
Jimmy

I think Reagan was the beginning of the Financial disaster this country is in today..........Every one since has added to the disaster.....I do Not think they give a rats behind about the American people.....They are Rich, Self centered and disconnected.........Carter may have not been the best President, but he is the best human being of any of them. He's out there giving . None of the others are.

February 06 2011 at 10:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Follow Politics Daily

  • Comics
robert-and-donna-trussell
CHAOS THEORY
Featuring political comics by Robert and Donna TrussellMore>>
  • Woman UP Video
politics daily videos
Weekly Videos
Woman Up, Politics Daily's Online Sunday ShowMore»
politics daily videos
TV Appearances
Showcasing appearances by Politics Daily staff and contributors.More>>