Mourning in America: So Much for Obama's Dreams of Being a Democratic Ronald Reagan

By Welch, Matt | Reason, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Mourning in America: So Much for Obama's Dreams of Being a Democratic Ronald Reagan


Welch, Matt, Reason


ONE OF THE BEST ways to survive the grotesque and empty power pageantry of Washington's annual State of the Union extravaganza is by visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara's online archive of past addresses and looking up the speeches that corresponded to where the current POTUS sits in his term. Barack Obama took the podium during a midterm election year in his second term, corresponding to the addresses of George W. Bush in 2006, Bill Clinton in 1998 ... all the way back to George Washington in 1794.

Some of these documents read like tales from another planet. "With the deepest regret," the father of our country said in his last midterm year, "do I announce to you that during your recess some of the citizens of the United States have been found capable of insurrection." Others contain contemporary-sounding, calorie-free promises about "creating a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid" (Bush '06), taking "all the necessary measures to strengthen the Social Security system for the 21st century" (Clinton '98), or achieving energy independence within six years (Nixon '74).

But every once in a while you stumble upon a commander in chief in a strikingly similar situation singing a startlingly different tune. Such is the difference between President Obama in 2014 and Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Both men took office in the teeth of bad recessions precipitated by reviled predecessors whose economic policies they successfully campaigned against. Unemployment had bounced from 6.3 percent to 7.5 percent in the 12 months before Reagan swore his oath, and jumped from 5 percent to 7.8 percent in the year before Obama took his. "These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions" Reagan said in his inaugural address. "Our economy is badly weakened," Obama said in his.

Unlike other presidents of the past half-century, Reagan and Obama were attractive, charismatic figures upon whom Americans could project their hopes and aspirations. Both vaulted to national political prominence through celebrated acts of oratory--Reagan at the 1964 Republican National Convention, Obama at the Democratic confab in 2004. It's no wonder that as the Illinois senator began smelling the prize of the White House, he was taking as inspiration not the most recent two-term Democratic president, but the politically transformational Republican that a generation of Democrats had learned to loathe.

"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 told the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.... I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism."

As president, Obama has consumed Reagan biographies as vacation reading material. He penned an appreciation of the Gipper for USA Today in 2011. ("At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything," Obama wrote.) His aides were tasked with studying how the 40th president realigned American politics. "Our hope," former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told Time in 2011, "is the story ends the same way."

So did it? Partisans certainly hoped so in the run-up to the 2012 election. Eyeing the headline unemployment rate a month before election day, Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza insisted that "the trend line does suggest that just as Reagan was able to argue that his policies had begun to work to improve the economy in 1984 so too can Obama in 2012."

But by 2014 State of the Union time, such comparisons felt obscene. …

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