Is Obama the Democrats' Reagan?

Obama has found his voice on racial issues and is amassing a significant, if controversial, legacy. But don't call him transformative yet.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator (and candidate for US Senate), spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass., July 27, 2004.

‘I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure,” Barack Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008, right as primary season was kicking off.

It’s the times that are different, just as they were in 1980, the Illinois senator continued. And then he delivered the line that raised eyebrows across the political universe and incensed his top competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

Then-Senator Obama was, in essence, offering himself up as the Democratic answer to President Reagan, someone who sensed Americans’ readiness for a new direction and then “put us on a fundamentally different path,” as Obama put it.

Now, 6-1/2 years into Obama’s presidency, the outlines of his legacy are clear: a major health reform that has added millions to insurance rolls, a recovering economy, Wall Street reform, a national right to same-sex marriage, diplomatic relations with Cuba, a nuclear deal with Iran, enhanced workers' rights, and aggressive new rules to combat climate change.

Add to that the rise of the Islamic State group and expanded use of drones to kill terror suspects overseas, two more legacy items that are less points of pride than challenges Obama will hand his successor.

Then there’s the racial turmoil of the past few years, and the national conversation it has sparked – a conversation that Obama, as the first black US president, has been uniquely positioned to participate in and often lead. That moment in June when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney will go down as a transcendent moment in his presidency.

The idea, in early 2008, that Obama wasn’t offering himself as “a singular figure” now seems disingenuous, at least on racial matters. Almost by definition, the first African-American president is a transformative president. 

Yet Obama is also defying some of the paralyzing pitfalls of a second term – at least so far. As recently as a year ago, he was shunned by members of his own party going into the midterm elections. He was considered a radioactive presence on the campaign trail, and pundits were calling him one of the weakest presidents in the postwar era.

Now, suddenly, he’s cutting nuclear deals, ending decades of animosity with Caribbean communists, forging far-reaching trade pacts, and soothing the nation on the crucible of race.

While many people virulently oppose most of these initiatives, no one can accuse him of succumbing to lame-duck status. Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress, Obama has put them on the defensive, forcing them to try to muster veto-proof majorities and go to court to block his initiatives.

All of which raises the deeper question of whether Obama will go down in history as a transformational, Reaganesque leader who has changed the overall direction of the nation. For now, it might be premature to anoint him into the kingdom of Gipper-Dem. 

“Will Obama become the poster child of the Democratic left, the way Reagan has become the Republican poster child, especially for conservatives?” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “That might be the case. But it so depends on what comes next.”

Just as Reagan was succeeded by a member of his own party – his vice president, George H.W. Bush, who continued his policies, albeit under the banner of “kinder and gentler” – so, too, does the scope of Obama’s legacy depend on the election of a Democrat in 2016. Start with the fact that the next president is likely to nominate one or more Supreme Court justices.

Then comes Obama’s aggressive use of executive power. It has allowed him to defer deportation for some undocumented immigrants, enact sweeping new climate-change rules, and go bold on foreign policy. The downside, for Obama, is that the next president could undo his actions, though as then-senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told The Huffington Post last year, “in politics, it’s possible to deny people things. It’s almost impossible to take things away from them.”

State-led court challenges, too, could thwart his immigration and climate-change initiatives.

In 2016, most important to Democrats’ prospects of holding onto the White House is the economy. Obama took office amid a full-blown economic crisis, passed the biggest stimulus bill in history, and has presided over a slow but steady recovery. Unemployment has been cut nearly in half – from 10 percent in late 2009 to 5.1 percent today. The stock market has roughly doubled under Obama, even with the recent drop. Economic growth has been middling, but at least it’s in positive territory.

How much credit Obama deserves is a matter of great debate. Conservatives say his policies have impeded the recovery, and they point with alarm to the federal government’s spiraling debt, now more than $18 trillion.

But for Obama and his team, winning a second term meant owning the bragging rights of an improved economy – and a chance to change the paradigm from the Reagan-era economic policies of less government and lower taxes.

“We have been battling that conception, and Democrats were forced to play on that field for a very long time,” Mr. Pfeiffer said in December. “We want to change the field.”

In his State of the Union address last January, a liberated Obama – now past his last midterm election – declared that “the shadow of crisis” had passed and laid out a bold (and expensive) domestic agenda aimed at boosting the middle class. He called for free community college tuition, tax cuts for working families, guaranteed paid sick leave and maternity leave, and higher taxes on the wealthy and large financial institutions.

With Congress firmly in Republican hands for the rest of his presidency, Obama wasn’t laying out actionable proposals, he was being the anti-Reagan. He was “changing the field” – and setting the stage for the 2016 presidential race.

•     •     •

Imagine if candidate Obama had praised Reagan in a debate with Sen. John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent in 2008.

“I knew Ronald Reagan.... Senator, you’re no Ronald Reagan,” Senator McCain could have said, echoing one of the all-time best debate put-downs in American history.

“Obama as the Democrats’ Reagan” didn’t become part of his campaign rhetoric. But soon after taking office in 2009, Obama came back to the theme of “transformative presidencies” in a private dinner with historians. Reagan came up, as did the Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman, according to a participant.

More recently, Obama invoked Reagan’s name when he took to the Rose Garden to tout the preliminary deal with Iran aimed at preventing the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“The American people remember that at the height of the cold war, presidents like Nixon and Reagan struck historic arms-
 control agreements with the Soviet Union, a far more dangerous adversary,” the president said in April. 

Conservatives see red when the Obama-Reagan comparison comes up.

“When a liberal invokes Ronald Reagan’s name to defend a specific policy, it is almost certain to be a policy Reagan would never have defended,” writes Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, in a column in The National Interest.

Obama’s Iran deal isn’t analogous to Reagan’s Soviet deal, Professor Nichols argues, because the Soviet Union was enfeebled economically, and had given up its ideology, which Iran has not. And, he says, the verification regime the Soviets agreed to was substantially stricter than the Iran deal.

That analysis addresses a specific policy matter. But the larger question of whether Obama becomes the Democrats’ Reagan may take years, or even decades, to answer. Obama would have to embody what it means to be a Democrat and help define and shape Democratic politics for a generation, says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

“That’s the extent of being the standard,” says Professor Gillespie. “And I’m not sure, when people define the politics of this era, that Obama will stand out as the singular figurehead, in the way Republicans hold Reagan in that high regard.”

One issue is how Obama positioned himself within the Democratic Party from the beginning. When he ran for president, he wasn’t a “movement” candidate in the way Reagan was. Obama saw himself as “an individual phenomenon, above partisan politics,” says Robert Borosage, cofounder of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future.

As president, Obama has balanced the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, leading to criticism from the left that he hasn’t gone far enough. The party’s liberal standard-bearer is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts. In the presidential race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, a self-described social democrat, is the liberal darling.

But the favorite to win the Democratic nod is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She comes out of her husband’s centrist Democratic tradition but has tacked to the left in her second run for the presidency – a reflection of the times. Since 1992, the year Bill Clinton won the White House, the portion of Americans who self-identify as “liberal” has risen seven percentage points to a record 24 percent, according to Gallup.

If Mrs. Clinton wins the presidency on a “progressive, inequality agenda, and makes the argument for public investment, then we’ll see Obama as the beginning of a progressive era,” says Mr. Borosage. “But if she tacks back to the center, we will know that we haven’t entered into a different world.”

Here’s another test in the great Obama-versus-Reagan smack down: Has Obama created a majority coalition that elects other people? And has he created a language and a philosophy about government that represents a transformation from the conservative era?

In presidential election years, at least, Obama has forged a majority coalition. Just as Reagan pulled Christian conservatives into Republican politics and turned working-class voters into Reagan Democrats, Obama has presided over the creation of the so-called rising American electorate – young voters, people of color, and single women. If they turn out in big enough numbers next year, they can elect a Democratic successor.

On the question of governing philosophy, Obama is on shakier ground. Reagan represented a sharp departure from New Deal-Great Society policies with his turn toward smaller government and lower taxes. Obama came in seeking to revitalize progressivism, but he also cast himself as a post-partisan leader and seemed determined, especially after Democrats lost control of the House, to cut deals with Republicans. Talk of entitlement reform, including cuts to benefits, frustrated liberals.

Reagan frustrated his own political base at times as well by raising taxes more than once and opting to address the annual antiabortion march by telephone, not in person. But conservatives knew on a fundamental level that he was with them.

“If you’re going to be a transformative president, you’ve got to set a course and stay with it and convince Americans about it,” says Borosage. “If you’re twisting and turning, Americans get lost.” 

Reagan’s embrace of supply-side economics – lower taxes, smaller government – coupled with increased military spending came to be known as Reaganomics. Nobody today is talking about “Obamanomics” for a reason.

Even on the stunning rise of public support for same-sex marriage in recent years, Obama wasn’t leading the crusade. He now speaks of gay marriage as a civil right, but announced his support only in 2012.

Obama is not alone as a president who “led from behind” on a major social issue. President Wilson signed women’s suffrage into law, but wasn’t at the forefront of the movement. Ditto Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights.

“Historically, very few presidents have been leaders on social issues,” says Tom Cronin, a presidential scholar at Colorado College. “We elect presidents and congresses that are slow to embrace change.”

•     •     • 

As soon as Obama won reelection, the speculation began. Would the “second-term curse” bite? Second terms, after all, are when scandals burst forth – Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky. The big, first-term initiatives have played out, and the four-year slide into lame-duckery kicks in.

The second half of this analysis is false. Scandals do hit in the second term (often from seeds planted in the first), but in the cases of Reagan and Clinton, they didn’t prevent second-term accomplishments. Reagan secured an arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union, immigration reform, and tax reform all in his second term. Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Act, achieved peace in Northern Ireland, and facilitated the Dayton Peace Accords on former Yugoslavia.

A major scandal also doesn’t mean death in the polls. Reagan recovered after Iran-contra and left office with a 63 percent job approval rating, according to Gallup. Clinton survived impeachment and left office with the highest approval rating of any US president since the advent of polling, at 66 percent in a Gallup survey.

Obama took office at 66 percent approval, but drifted down to earth, only rising above 50 percent long enough to win reelection. His average job approval score for the duration of his presidency to date – 47 percent in Gallup polls – is below the average for US presidents. But he is governing in times of intense partisan polarization and high unease about the future of the nation. Stagnant wages and the threat of Islamic State are top concerns.

One of Obama’s roughest patches in office came just four months into his second term. Questions about the government’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, dogged the administration. The Internal Revenue Service admitted to targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny. The Justice Department was caught secretly accessing reporters’ phone records.

Two years later, Obama has never seemed more confident as president.

“I finally know what I’m doing?” he quipped to “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who ticked off recent accomplishments, including hard-fought congressional passage of “fast track” trade authority and the negotiation of the Iran deal.

“I tell you, there’s no doubt that you get better as you go along,” Obama added. Obama has also made clear that he’s been playing the “long game” from the start, and counted on winning two terms.

“A lot of the work that we did early starts bearing fruit later,” he told Mr. Stewart. “And it just so happened over the last couple of months, that people are seeing some of the work that we started way back when I first came in.”

Much remains on Obama’s presidential “bucket list.” His campaign pledge to close the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains unfulfilled. The administration has pledged to submit a plan to Congress after the August recess.

An initiative with rare bipartisan, bicameral support – and therefore, potential for success – is reform of the criminal-justice system, an issue of particular importance in the black community. Planned legislation would narrow mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes and divert nonviolent first-time offenders to probation and treatment. This initiative is key to Obama’s legacy as the first African-American president. So is his recently announced plan to tackle racial desegregation in the suburbs.

The United Nations-sponsored climate conference in Paris in December is another legacy item. As the president told Stewart, he hopes to get China and India on board with a binding, global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The administration has promised an up-or-down decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline before Obama leaves office. But other agenda items – comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, a higher federal minimum wage, universal pre-K, free community college tuition – require congressional approval, and are going nowhere.

Then there’s the question of Obama’s post-presidency. Unlike Reagan, Obama will be a young ex-president. And he has certainly promised big things, including continued devotion to his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to help boys and young men of color lead productive lives. Africa, particularly his father’s native Kenya, promises to be a special focus, too.   

There are also signs that Obama’s nonprofit grass-roots organization, Organizing for Action – which promotes the president’s policies and trains community organizers – will endure after he leaves office, says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who has studied OFA.

Professor Milkis cites the group’s continued fundraising and suggests OFA could be instrumental in cementing the president’s legacy after he leaves office. “With 30 million e-mails, they amplify his voice and give him a presence in communities,” he says.

The idea of Obama going back to his roots as a community organizer may not be all that far-fetched. That, plus staying active in My Brother’s Keeper (and making high-priced speeches) could make for a full life after the White House. “With his organization and relative youth, Obama could have a post-presidency that might be as significant in some ways as his presidency,” says Robert C. Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. 

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