By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
To understand how Barack Obama sees himself and his presidency, don’t look to Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s role model is Ronald Reagan—and that is just what Obama told us before he was first elected.
Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment—in Obama’s case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the 40th president’s political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama’s inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history. Reagan used his first inaugural to make an unabashed case for conservatism. Conservatives who loved that Reagan speech are now criticizing Obama for emulating their hero and his bold defense of first principles.
And like Reagan, Obama seeks to enact his program not by getting the opposition party’s leaders to support him but by winning over a minority of the less doctrinaire Republicans—especially representatives from the Northeast, West Coast and parts of the Midwest who sense where the political winds in their regions are blowing.
The relationship of Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill is often misrepresented. The Gipper and Tip got along OK, but that’s not how Reagan got most of his bills passed. O’Neill opposed most of what Reagan wanted. Reagan didn’t let this stop him and the media at the time didn’t condemn Reagan for failing to negotiate O’Neill’s stamp of approval. Instead, Reagan pushed through his measures with the support of a minority of Democrats, most of them conservatives and moderates from the South, who knew their part of the country was moving Reagan’s way.
And Obama, like Reagan, is arguing that this moment demands a new approach to foreign policy. But if Reagan’s slogan was “peace through strength,” Obama’s might be summarized as strength through peace.
Reagan took office at a moment when Americans felt weak abroad, so a majority welcomed his defense buildup and his aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric. Obama knows that Americans now see the war in Iraq as a mistake and the war in Afghanistan as having run its course. They sense that the nation’s long-term power depends on rebuilding at home. Thus Obama’s insistence “that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Obama’s admiration for Reagan’s achievements, if not for his policies or ideology, has been on the record for a long time. Almost exactly five years before this week’s inaugural, on Jan. 15, 2008, Obama gave an interview to the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal where he expressed his respect for his predecessor’s style of leadership.
At the time, his mild knock on Bill Clinton was the big news, since Obama was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But with the 2012 election sealing the Clinton-Obama alliance, the more important revelation of the interview can come into clearer focus.
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. ... He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
“I think we are in one of those times right now,” Obama went on, “where people feel like things as they are going aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out.”
The Republican approach was not fully played out politically after 2008 because the depth of the country’s economic troubles kept discontent high and helped the GOP to its 2010 midterm victory. But in 2012, voters had the choice of confirming their 2008 decision to move toward the center-left, or ratifying 2010’s verdict on behalf of the right. They chose Obama and the new progressive course.
Republicans in Congress now, like Democrats in the Reagan years, are coming to terms with a country that wants to move in a new direction. Like Tip O’Neill, Speaker John Boehner is having trouble holding his troops together.
Reagan forced Democrats to realize they wouldn’t keep winning simply by invoking FDR’s legacy. Paradoxically, in following Reagan’s political lead, Obama is setting out to prove that the Reagan era is finally over.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
Ronald Reagan in 1981.