Welcome Back to the White House, Mr. President

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Sullivan

With his first term behind him, Obama is poised to be as significant a president as Reagan--tackling the deficit, spearheading immigration reform, and jolting the GOP back to sanity.

As the fall has turned crisper, a second term for Barack Obama has gotten likelier. This may, of course, change: the debates, the Middle East, the unemployment numbers could still blow up the race. At this point in 2004, one recalls, George W. Bush was about to see a near eight-point lead shrivel to a one-state nail-biter by Election Day. But one thing that has so far, in my view, been underestimated is the potential impact of a solid Obama win, and perhaps a Democratic retention of the Senate and some progress in the House. This is now a perfectly plausible outcome. It would also be a transformational moment in modern American politics.

If Obama wins, to put it bluntly, he will become the Democrats' Reagan. The narrative writes itself. He will emerge as an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery. To be sure, the Obama recovery isn't likely to have the same oomph as the one associated with Reagan--who benefited from a once-in-a-century cut of top income tax rates (from 70 percent to, at first, 50 percent, and then to 28 percent) as well as a huge jump in defense spending at a time when the national debt was much, much less of a burden. But Obama's potential for Reagan status (maybe minus the airport-naming) is real. Yes, Bill Clinton won two terms and is a brilliant pol bar none, as he showed in Charlotte in the best speech of both conventions. But the crisis Obama faced on his first day--like the one Reagan faced--was far deeper than anything Clinton confronted, and the future upside therefore is much greater. And unlike Clinton's constant triangulating improvisation, Obama has been playing a long, strategic game from the very start--a long game that will only truly pay off if he gets eight full years to see it through. That game is not only changing America. It may also bring his opposition, the GOP, back to the center, just as Reagan indelibly moved the Democrats away from the far left.

Looking back, of course, the comparison between Obama and Reagan seems absurd--even blasphemous. There is, to begin with, the scope of Reagan's reelection, winning 49 states in 1984--something Obama, in a much more polarized time, cannot hope to replicate. More fundamental is the mythology of Reagan as an unfaltering ideological conservative who galvanized the right and demoralized the left. But the reality of Reagan, especially in his first term, was very different. He was, in office, a center-right pragmatist who struggled badly in his first term, reversed himself on tax cuts several times, was uneasily reliant on Southern Democrats, invaded Lebanon, lost 265 U.S. servicemembers, and then fled, and ran for reelection with a misery index of unemployment and inflation at 11.5 percent. (Obama is running for a second term with a misery index of 9.8 percent.) Reagan also got major flak from his right wing, as Obama has from his left. A classic excerpt in early 1983 from The Miami Herald: "Conservatives may not back President Reagan for reelection in 1984 unless he reverses what they consider 'almost a stampede to the left' in the White House." Reagan's Republicans lost 26 seats in 1982, down 13 percent from their previous numbers. That same year, Reagan's approval ratings sank to 35 percent--several points lower in his first term than Obama's ever reached. If you compare Gallup's polls of presidential approval, you also see something interesting: Obama's first-term approval--its peaks and valleys--resembles Reagan's more than any other recent president; it's just that Obama's lows have been higher and his highs lower. …