By Gil Troy
When running for president in 2008, Barack Obama infuriated both Bill and Hillary Clinton by saying he dreamed of being a transformational leader like Ronald Reagan — and unlike Bill Clinton. Insulted by this challenge to their legacy, the Clintons accused their opponent of endorsing Reagan’s policies, when Obama was assessing impact not ideology. Indeed, Obama hopes to make as big a presidential footprint as the 40th American president, who was born 103 years ago today on 6 February 1911. Yet, as California celebrates “Ronald Reagan Day,” and as Barack Obama begins his sixth year in office, even Obama’s supporters would have to admit that the Democrat from Illinois who was born in Hawaii does not measure up to the Republican from California who was born in Illinois — at least so far.
Of course, measuring presidential footprints is always complicated, and is especially difficult in mid-tenure. In fact, in 1982, when Reagan’s Revolution was stalled by a Democratic surge during the first midterm elections since Reagan’s 1980 victory, many pundits pronounced Reagan a failure — and doubted he would even win re-election. Moreover, Reagan’s presidency was much more volatile than most remember, with nasty political fights, complaints about legislative gridlock, constant controversies, and, believe it or not, wild fluctuations in Reagan’s public approval ratings.
Still, when Ronald Reagan retired after eight tumultuous years in office in 1989, he — and many others on both sides of the aisle — declared his presidency a success. Ronald Reagan’s Revolution helped change Americans’ attitudes toward their country, their government, and the world, as the United States emerged from the demoralizing, dispiriting, inflation-scarred, crime-ridden, 1970s. Reagan had entered the White House in January 1981 promising to restore Americans’ faith in their nation and themselves, to shrink “Big Government,” and to defend America more aggressively, especially against the Soviet Union. Reagan’s American restoration delivered the three Ps of patriotism, prosperity, and peace. American pride revived as the economy soared and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe collapsed. “All in all,” Reagan said in his 1989 farewell address, “not bad, not bad at all.”
Of course, part of Reagan’s great skill was taking credit for phenomena that were not necessarily under his control. Reagan himself admitted that by pointing to the euphoria surrounding the Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing in April 1981, just months into his tenure, as proof that the desire “to feel proud and patriotic again” emerged spontaneously. Still, leaders have to know how to take advantage of the times in which they govern — and that is where Reagan has been besting Obama.
To be fair, Obama has been unlucky where Reagan was lucky. Reagan came in just as the harsh anti-inflation medicine Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve had administered was starting to work — and he left just as the oppressive regime the Soviet Communists had developed was starting to implode. By contrast, Obama entered office facing the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and confronting a range of enemies worldwide at a time when the American appetite for international confrontation had diminished, thanks to George W. Bush’s overreach. Moreover, Obama has had some successes, most notably, the Affordable Health Care Act, which he is banking on to shape his legacy.
Yet, as president, even though the cultural transformations America is currently experiencing will probably define his legacy, Obama has often appeared ambivalent about them. He fears being caricatured as president of the Newly Multicultural States of America, or, worse, McGovernik America. Therefore, this president has been a Culture War wimp.
America today is bigger, browner, more open to gays, less committed to traditional marriage, more open to gun control, and less committed to the Drug War than ever before. Many of these transformations not only predated Obama’s tenure, they made him president.
Since his election, Obama has helped mainstream those changes. The reversal in the politically safe position on gays probably represents America’s sharpest political U-turn since the 1960s. In 2008, Obama and most Democrats opposed gay marriage publicly while approving it privately; now, mainstream Republicans increasingly support gay marriage publicly – or duck – muting their disapproval.
Yet on these cultural changes, Obama usually plays Hamlet not Richard the Lionheart. Obama dodged the gay marriage issue until Vice President Joe Biden pre-empted him. Even then, Obama endorsed gay marriage in a safe, folksy, interview, not a daring political address. More recently, Obama surrendered half-heartedly in America’s Drug War too, casually talking about going “forward” on decriminalizing marijuana in a New Yorker interviewer.
Such gingerliness is mistaken. True, riding cultural waves feels craven, like taking credit for good weather. But good leaders are good surfers, turning random lucky breaks into their good fortune. Obama, the multi-cultural family man, has the potential to forge a Third Way culturally, finding a new synthesis beyond the red versus blue polarized Culture Wars. Obama’s Cultural Third Way can be a values reclamation project, articulating the enduring moral standards that persist in a changing America. If he succeeds in that realm, he truly will be Reaganesque.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author of eight books on American history, including The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction and Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.
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