In many ways Obama’s platform is the inverse of Reagan’s. As Reagan did in 1980, today Obama wants to change how America is seen in the world, and promises a profound shift on the defining foreign policy issue of the day. Domestically, Obama, like Reagan, proposes a completely different approach to taxation, and sees the current relationship between the private sector and government as wrongheaded. Of course the substance of the two men’s platforms could scarcely be more different, but in terms of the magnitude of the change they sought to make, they have much in common.
The economic benefits of keeping taxes low are so widely accepted today, at least among Republicans, as to seem commonplace and uncontroversial. Reagan’s supply-side economics were seen at the time, though, as radical, as Wilentz’ history reminds us. It was Reagan whom George H. W. Bush was mocking when he referred to “voodoo economics,” and Bush’s constituency in the Republican Party was broad enough for Reagan to put him on the ticket. Obama’s voting record puts him well to the left of most of his congressional colleagues, but this needn’t be an impediment for him, especially if, as Reagan, he chooses a running mate who is seen as more moderate.
Obama may well find his “Reagan Democrats,” too. Carter’s critics from the left rejected his handling of the economic malaise of the late 1970s, leading many who might otherwise vote Democrat to back Reagan in 1980. Bush, and McCain, who is already being described by some as seeking George W. Bush’s third term, are routinely criticized from the right on foreign policy, and conservatives who see the Iraq War as an unacceptable and lamentable mistake may be drawn to vote for Obama. A number of conservative commentators have already strongly hinted that they prefer him to McCain.
Obama is, as Reagan was, a natural speaker, able to evoke emotion without emoting clumsily himself. There are other similarities of less importance; just as columnists and news anchors speculate whether America is ready for a black president, so was there a genuine question in 1980 about whether a divorced man could be elected president.
There are many differences between the two men. Obama is running against a self-styled “maverick” who may thus be able to distance himself from the deeply unpopular Bush, while Reagan ran against Carter, who could hardly denounce his own policies. Reagan, like Obama, entered politics as a second career, but by the time he ran for president Reagan had significant political experience; service as a state senator, and less than one full term in the US Senate cannot be compared to two terms as Governor of California.
To whatever extent Obama can capitalize on the pendulum swinging in his direction, he may be poised to win sufficient support to gain the Presidency, and his vision of America could transform politics for a generation just as Reagan did, especially if Obama were to win a second term. Obama offers a narrative that appeals not only to Democrats but also to the unaffiliated, and a not negligible number of Republicans, as Reagan put together a coalition among supporters who were not natural allies.
Perhaps the most stark difference of all, though, is in each man’s self-perception. Even after helping to bring about the end of the Cold War and the start of a period of tremendous prosperity, Reagan was habitually modest. By contrast, Obama already casts himself in legendary terms, referring in speeches to his legacy when he has scarcely clinched his party’s nomination. As long as Obama remains more preoccupied with his image and message than with policy and governing, he will approach Reagan only in rhetoric, not in accomplishments.