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.
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.