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
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."