People mean different things by what Ronald Reagan achieved as president, and therefore what it would mean to be a “liberal Reagan.” The Prospect’s Paul Waldman says that to be like Reagan, Obama would need to “define an era that continues even after he leaves office.” At The New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat talks about “a long, Reagan-like shadow over subsequent policy debates.” The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein considers whether Obama will match Reagan as “a president who not only wins elections (as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did), but one who ideologically shifts the nation in his direction.” I think, however, that these are all aspects of the same idea: that Reagan (in Obama’s own words) “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
Here’s the problem. Ronald Reagan wasn’t really the Reagan of everyone’s imagination. So aspiring to be a “liberal Reagan” is chasing a fantasy. Worse than that—it’s a fantasy that can easily distract a president from the real things that he should be doing.
Take a look at the Reagan myth. Did Reagan “ideologically shift the nation in his direction?” If we’re talking about voters, the answer is pretty clearly no. As Northeastern political scientist Bill Mayer showed in The Changing American Mind, if anything, public opinion on many issues became more liberal, not more conservative, during Reagan’s presidency (see also a nice post from George Washington University political scientist John Sides).
Did Reagan cast a shadow over subsequent policy debates? Sure, but no more than any other two-term occupant of the Oval Office—certainly not through fundamental conservative change. The growth of government, after cuts in 1981, started back up while Reagan was still president, and it’s hard to see Reagan’s influence in such measures as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). Reagan was, of course, a cold warrior, but so was everyone from Truman on—even Jimmy Carter. And to the extent that Reagan was particularly bellicose, it didn’t really survive his first term (much to the consternation of 1980s anticommunists).
Did Reagan “define an era?” Well, if we all repeat it often enough, I suppose so, regardless of whether the man himself has anything to do with it.
Thinking about some of the other possibilities: It’s hard to see any bright line in which Reagan’s terms mark a change in GOP electoral success. Nor was Reagan a particularly popular president. His first term was well below average. His second term was better, but he was not as popular as Bill Clinton or Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan certainly did play an important role in the full takeover of the Republican Party by conservatives. And of course he did have his share of accomplishments in office. It’s just that most of his exaggerated reputation is hype. It’s worth noting that Bill Clinton, in 1992, ran against 12 years—not 4—of Republican presidents.
And it’s certainly worth noting that Republican winners in 1995 and, for that matter, 2011, invoked Reagan—but they didn't say that they were restoring his achievements which had atrophied under Democratic control. Because that just wasn't the case.
Why, then, the Reagan myth? Any successful two-term president has the material to build a myth around, and Reagan (unlike Ike) has happened to benefit from a group dedicated to deifying him. His strengths were rhetorical, and people who write about politics like well-crafted words (people who televise politics like well-delivered words), so his rhetorical strengths tend to be overrated. Everyone is vulnerable to fooling themselves with nostalgia: For conservatives, the Reagan presidency is a golden age to look back to, given that he’s the only even slightly successful movement-conservative president; for liberals, it’s easy to invent a golden era of progressive politics that Reagan disrupted.
What does all of this suggest for Barack Obama? That he should forget about being transformative or establishing some sort of liberal era. That’s not how politics works. Politics is about grinding it out, a bit at a time, and then fighting again tomorrow.
First of all, any attempt to generally change public opinion is probably useless; any attempt to “win” arguments about liberals versus conservatives is totally futile. Sure, give appropriate speeches and make the best arguments. Just don’t expect the electorate to change much.
Second, what lasts are serious changes in public policy. NATO lasted after Truman. The highways lasted after Ike. Civil-rights legislation and its effects lasted after Johnson. Of course, Obama has the Affordable Care Act and more already in the ledger; that’s a pretty good start. Note that we tend to attribute whatever happens to the president whether it was his doing or Congress’s (or sometimes just stuff that happens). And note, too, that it takes a while to see which pieces of policy really matter; there are still fascinating arguments about which 19th-century polices counted most, so forget about knowing anything anytime soon.
Third, the one place beyond policy where presidents can make long-lasting changes is in changing their political party. A winning, successful president might not be able to change the ideology of swing voters (who, after all, are the least likely to pay careful attention to politics or even have an ideology). But a winning, successful president can affect what strong partisans think is acceptable and unacceptable within the party. Reagan’s victory may not have changed public opinion, but after Reagan, every viable candidate for the Republican nomination for president has claimed to be a conservative and taken steps to justify that label.
Add it all up and Obama, if he wants to be a president who really changes things for the better, should … well, it’s boring and obvious, but he should mostly focus on promoting good public policy. Not fighting the good fight or talking the good talk for liberal ideals, but just getting done whatever he can get done given all the constraints that surround him. Well-implemented plans will be hard for subsequent presidents to displace. And presidents who make good policy tend to be popular, thereby ensuring that partisans seek to replace them (not only immediately, but into the future) with similar candidates. In other words, he should pretty much focus on being a good president, and let the rest of it take care of itself. No, it’s not as exciting as imagining that Obama can win arguments for a generation by choosing exactly the right words at the right time—but no one, certainly not Ronald Reagan, could do that. And it does have the benefit of being how politics really works.
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