The central conceit of Barack Obama’s candidacy is that he is a new kind of politician. His race aside, there is little about him that is genuinely refreshing; although he is young, there have been younger candidates, and he would not be the youngest president, if elected. His much heralded moderate status is entirely fictitious, and his most clearly elucidated positions, such as on foreign policy and taxation, are simply left-liberal orthodoxy.
The most insightful comparison of this election season may have come from Obama himself , who proposed, to howls of outrage from Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, that he was a politician in the mold of Reagan. Obama was, with the self-flattering hyperbole that has become the hallmark of his speeches, suggesting that he might make the same lasting impression on America and the world that Reagan did. In reality, the most salient parallels between the two men lie in the appeal they have within and beyond their parties, their position relative to members of their own parties, and the break they represent from recent history.
Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan: A History 1974 – 2008 is the first major history of the Reagan presidency writ large. Wilentz’ thesis is that Reagan, like Lincoln and FDR, reshaped the landscape in a manner that future politicians of either party could not ignore. He writes two decades after Reagan left office, and it is premature, to say the least, to suggest that Obama will be of similar stature when his general election campaign has scarcely begun. With regard to the political climate, though, there are many similarities between Obama’s position today and Reagan’s in 1980.
Reagan offered a clean break from the past. His positions on foreign policy, especially Iran, and the proper role of government in the economy differed sharply from Carter’s. Equally, he offered a way back into power to a Republican Party still smarting from the disgrace of Watergate, and presented an image of simplicity and sincerity that distanced him from Nixon’s calculating image.
Obama casts himself as entirely different from Bush on almost every substantial issue, but his appeal to Democrats stems at least as much from his departure from the Clintons’ model. Where Hillary (like Bill) is seen as a cynical career politician, Obama has made a virtue of his inexperience and presents himself as fresh and idealistic. Obama’s uneventful personal life is a welcome contrast with the tawdriness attached to the Clinton name. And the more visibly Hillary strained, tearing up on camera, or protesting being “piled on,” the more effortlessly cool Obama’s campaigning appeared.
Obama, like Reagan, wants to transform rather than simply reform. The celebrities telling us through music videos that Obama will be the president of all the people are the 21st century version of Reagan breaking the fourth wall to ask TV viewers “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” in his 1980 debate with Carter. While melding Hollywood and politics, both candidates offer entry into politics at the highest level to a group that had spent decades in the wilderness: conservative Republicans in Reagan’s case, and liberal Democrats in Obama’s. Both candidates promised not a return their respective party’s glory days, but something new and exciting. Obama’s “Yes We Can” is less evocative than Reagan’s “Morning in America,” but both slogans contain an optimism and energy never detectable in the rhetoric of Bush and Clinton, or Carter, Ford and Nixon.