40 AND 44…. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama reflected a bit on the historical model he had in mind for his presidency. He would occasionally reference Ronald Reagan, not because the Democrat wanted to emulate the conservative policies of the ’80s, but because of the 40th president “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
As Paul Glastris, the Monthly‘s editor in chief, noted in the new issue, “Over the past year, Obama has reportedly become more and more convinced of, and reassured by, the parallels between himself and the fortieth president…. The parallels are indeed hard to miss. Both men took the oath of office amid worst-since-the-Depression recessions, handed to them by administrations widely considered to have been ineffectual. As a result, both were able to pass major pieces of legislation that represented ideologically bold breaks with the past. But both also ended their first year weakened by sagging poll numbers driven by high unemployment.”
This came to mind because the new ABC News/Washington Post poll took particular note of the fact that President’s Obama’s “course in approval almost precisely matches that of the last president to take office in the tempest of a recession, Ronald Reagan, who went from 68 percent job approval shortly after he took office to 52 percent at the one-year mark. Obama’s gone from 68 percent to 53 percent in the comparable period.”
The WaPo‘s Dan Balz added that these similarities have not only been noticed by White House aides, but that the parallels are considered important: “After the New Deal and the Great Society, Reagan made government the enemy and, through tax cuts and generally unsuccessful attempts to cut spending, sought to scale down the size and power of Washington. What Obama proposed — for the economy, health care and energy — amounted to an attempt to reverse much of what Reagan had done. As Reagan transformed his political era, Obama hoped to transform his.”
Of course, in 1982, Reagan’s GOP suffered some major midterm setback, but it prompted the White House to deal with Democratic leaders like Tip O’Neill, who were serious about policy and problem solving. Obama, meanwhile, is confronted with an opposition party that doesn’t understand (or even want to understand) public policy.
Nevertheless, Reagan seized the opportunity of his circumstances to change the way Americans felt about government’s role in public life, which is to say, the then-president labeled government “the problem.” Obama’s challenge is to seize his opportunity to make the opposite case — after conservatism failed on every possible front, the country could finally be receptive to the notion that competent, effective government is a tool that can be used to create economic growth and global stability.
So far, it’s not going well, and Obama’s message is struggling. In January 1981, Republicans were saying the same thing.