Published December 23, 2015
President Barack Obama is embracing an unlikely group of political icons as he tries to paint Republican challenger Mitt Romney as extreme: He's praising Republican presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
The Democratic president typically offers up Republican leaders of the past as evidence of how both parties can work together in Washington to pursue big ideas and rebuild the economy. With Election Day seven months away, Obama hopes to convince voters that he, like his Republican predecessors, is a reasonable moderate. At the same time, he's casting Romney as a candidate who would embrace too-conservative policies out of step with most Americans and with the Republican Party in years past.
Obama invoked Reagan's name four times in a speech this week to The Associated Press annual meeting. He said the conservative hero, never accused of being a "tax-and-spend socialist," still recognized the need for tax increases as well as spending cuts to tame federal deficits. Obama's verdict: "He could not get through a Republican primary today."
Painting Romney as an ideological extremist might seem a curious strategy for Obama, given that the likely Republican nominee has been considered the moderate candidate in the Republican primary field and has struggled to consolidate support among conservatives in the party. But Obama's team hopes to define Romney in a negative light before the former Massachusetts governor has a chance to pivot toward the general election and emphasize his past positions that could appeal to moderates of both parties and the independent voters who can decide close races in a polarized America.
Obama has cited Reagan more than 40 times in speeches and public events since 2009, according to an analysis of public statements and transcripts by the AP. But Eisenhower is Obama's favorite Republican for name-dropping -- the president has referenced him more than 90 times. Lincoln is right behind, with 80 mentions in public comments covered by the transcripts.
Romney, taking the same stage as Obama this week, a day later, told editors and publishers that the president was wrong. Reagan, he said, "would win handily in a primary, frankly, in all the primaries," if he were running today. Romney accused Obama of "setting up a straw man to distract us from his record."
Romney and his team say the president is trying to hide the fact that he's a liberal who has promoted government programs instead of individual opportunity -- the antithesis of Reagan. Obama, these Republicans contend, has failed to bridge partisan differences so he must resort to rhetoric at a time when people care more about the economy and gas prices.
On the flip side, Democrats see the drawn-out Republican primary and rise of tea party conservatives in 2010 as prevailing currents pushing Republican candidates away from the political center.
At fundraisers and in speeches, Obama often plays history professor, using Lincoln, Eisenhower and others to try to make his case.
Lincoln, Obama frequently notes, launched the transcontinental railroad and the National Academy of Sciences -- efforts, he says, that mirror his own attempts to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and know-how. Obama points to Eisenhower's role as the father of the Interstate Highway System and reminds people that Richard Nixon, hardly a darling of liberals, created the Environmental Protection Agency, now under attack from Republican lawmakers.
George W. Bush -- a frequent target of criticism during Obama's 2008 campaign -- added prescription drug coverage to Medicare health care coverage for the elderly, the president told the AP annual meeting. George H.W. Bush was the first president to talk about a cap-and-trade system to curb pollution emissions -- an approach that's now political suicide in Republican circles.
There are other reminders. In December, Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas, to argue that middle class families face a "make-or-break moment," echoing themes that Republican Theodore Roosevelt stressed in a 1910 speech in the same town.
On a Friday night in January, the White House released a photo of Obama sitting with President George H.W. Bush and his son former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during a friendly get-together in the Oval Office.
About the only former Republican president who has taken heat from Obama is Rutherford B. Hayes, who Obama said questioned the usefulness of the telephone in the 1870s (something Hayes' presidential center disputed.)
But Reagan -- beloved by Republicans of all stripes -- is the one who gets special billing lately as Obama works to cobble together a winning coalition from across the political spectrum.
For Obama, there's irony in his frequent Reagan references. In his 1995 book, "Dreams of My Father," Obama wrote that when he told classmates of his decision to become a community organizer in Chicago in 1983, he would "pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds."
Now, Obama doesn't use "Reagan" and "dirty deeds" in the same sentence. At St. Patrick's Day events during his presidency, Obama has pointed to the friendship Reagan shared with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, both of whom "knew how to work together to find common ground."
In the heat of midterm elections in September 2010, Obama pointed to Reagan as a model of bipartisanship, telling an audience in Parma, Ohio, that Reagan "was willing to help save Social Security for future generations, working with Democrats."
During last summer's prolonged debt ceiling negotiations, Obama noted that Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times. And in September, he put Reagan forth as a model for immigration reform, saying he "understood that immigration was an important part of the American experience. Right now, you have not that kind of leadership coming from the Republican Party."
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Obama's frequent mentioning of Reagan and other Republican presidents has become a "major basis of his campaign," aimed "not to show himself as a moderate, but to paint the contemporary Republican Party as one that is really now an insurgent outlier."
Beyond that, there may be a more basic reason to emulate Reagan. As Obama seeks re-election, he is aware of a Reagan trait that every presidential incumbent covets: In 1984, Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid for a second term.