Over the past two weeks, there has been incessant chatter about the parallels between the presidencies of Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, and with good reason: As we celebrate the Gipper’s Centennial birthday today, it’s only natural that he’s back in our focus.
Truth be told, the comparisons began long before the President’s State of the Union address last week, where he seemed to echo Ronald Reagan’s more cherished beliefs, such as corporate tax cuts, a simpler income tax code, a freeze on discretionary spending, and the need for entitlement reform.
As early as the Democratic primary in the winter of 2008, then-candidate Obama proffered Ronald Reagan as a role model to be emulated – much to the Clinton’s chagrin – should he capture the White House. “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,” he confessed to reporters during the Nevada primary – an admission that nearly came back to haunt him with Democratic voters.
On the face of it, the comparisons are easy to understand. Like Reagan, Obama is a skillful communicator adept at inspiring audiences and evoking stirring imagery with his words. True enough, Reagan had more of hand in writing his speeches than Obama — a fact that is often overlooked — but there’s no denying that both men rank among the elite talkers to occupy the White House.
And like Reagan, President Obama seems to be affixed with a permanently sunny disposition that only rarely crests from his countenance. Part of both men’s appeal, it has been posited, is attributable in some measure to their belief in our better angels, an uncommon trait among many of their cohorts.
And of course, both came to office during difficult and anxious times. Reagan was greeted by double digit inflation, unemployment, and interest rates – a trifecta of calamities. It was widely regarded as the worst economy since the Great Depression, a phrase that has particular resonance with President Obama, too. It’s hard to imagine a president, save Franklin Roosevelt, stepping into more dire economic circumstances than Obama and Reagan.
But that’s where the comparisons should end. At the heard of the matter, what defined Ronald Reagan most was the resoluteness of his convictions and fidelity to those ideas. He came to the office with a few major goals — to strengthen the economy, restore pride in the military, meet communism head-on, and roll back the influence of government — from which he never wavered. He compromised on occasion, knowing full well that 70 percent of something was better than 100 percent of nothing, but never retreated from the central tenets of his governing philosophy. That was simply out of the question.
Reagan took pride in the fact that his world view could be squeezed onto an index card. Back than it was called simplistic and naïve; today it’s seen as disciplined and focused. He understood — intuitively — that the presidency is essentially a narrative — an arc with a beginning, middle and end— that was built to hold but a few story-lines at a time, a notion that seems to be lost on President Obama. He resisted the temptation — all too common among office holders — to become everything to everybody. If it meant alienating some constituencies or ruffling a few feathers, so be it. He never mistook popularity for posterity.
President Obama has governed a bit differently, at least through his first two years in office. One would be hard pressed to discern a narrative or arc to his presidency, other than the constant vigilance to stave off an economic apocalypse. A noble cause, to be sure — and one that even his harshest critics would have to concede has been successful — but one born of necessity, not philosophy.
Even health care reform — his signature accomplishment to date — struck a slightly discordant note with his campaign theme, which hardly put an emphasis on universal health care. Why he embarked on overhauling the nation’s health care system during such perilous economic times remains a mystery, and many believe largely responsible for the Democrats’ poor showing in the mid-term elections.
President Obama is smartly tacking to the political center, so the pundits tell us, a course correction as he races towards re-election. Whether it’s just political theater or something more substantive is hard to tell. Either way, it’s certainly reminiscent of another president, though his name is Clinton, not Reagan.
Nick Ragone is the author of four books, including his most recent, "Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions that Changed the Nation," which hits bookstores this week.