Comparing Presidents Reagan and Eisenhower

By Kengor, Paul | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Comparing Presidents Reagan and Eisenhower


Kengor, Paul, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Many scholars--such as Richard E. Neustadt and Stephen Skowronek,(1) among others--have made notable analogies between presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, the similarities are tantalizing. But one similarly appealing analogy that has scarcely been made compares Reagan with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.(2) In the author's opinion, there are important similarities--as well as differences--not only in ideologies and policies but also in the personalities, styles, and perceptions of Reagan and Eisenhower. The latter factors likely tell us more about the two as people and leaders than the former, as comparisons made on the basis of policies and ideologies are unsound due to changes over time. While the comparisons are far from precise--the two men may have more differences than similarities--there are nonetheless some interesting parallels. This article spells out some of those differences and similarities.

This article first looks at the difficulties in comparing presidents by policies. It then gives a brief summation of the Reagan-FDR analogy before comparing Reagan and Eisenhower in terms of popularity, personal relations, perceptions, analytical abilities (as "thinkers and strategists"), negotiating skills, self-confidence, management and decision making, and policy involvement. It wraps up with a Summary and Conclusions section that adds information and sums up the main points in the article.

The Difficulties in Police-Based Comparisons

Before going into the analogies presented in this piece, one should understand the futility of policy-based comparisons of presidents. Some scholars are bothered by analogies made among presidents when it appears that those being compared held totally opposite policy beliefs. William Leuchtenburg, like many FDR partisans, was bothered by links made between Reagan and Roosevelt since he believes the two men possessed completely opposite beliefs on numerous issues.(3) However, as Stephen Skowronek has noted, analogies made between presidents are typically based on structural similarities rather than on ideological differences. Skowronek, for example, corrects those who misconstrued President George Bush's self-comparisons with Harry S. Truman--a tie that enraged Truman partisans. He writes,

When George Bush invoked the spirit of Harry Truman to spur his 1992

reelection drive, Democrats were quick to take offense. What could a

Greenwich-born, Yale-educated conservative possibly have in common with that

liberal midwestern haberdasher? What could Reagan's successor possibly have

in common with Roosevelt's?(4)

But, Skowronek wisely notes, Bush was not identifying with Truman's background, personality, party, or ideology. Instead, he was thinking about Truman's place in a political sequence and come-from-behind abilities. Bush also, of course, perceived a kinship with Truman's campaign against the "do-nothing Congress."

Consequently, there are lessons in this sort of presidential analogy making. While presidents have various similarities on certain matters, they also have numerous differences. More important, one should not compare presidents of different eras by their policies. Generally, policies are not comparable, simply due to the vast differences in time periods. This lesson is particularly apropos for Reagan and Eisenhower.

Consider the major policy differences between Reagan and Eisenhower (both Republicans). Stephen E. Ambrose wrote the following on Ike's view of where the Democrats might take the country should they gain power in 1960: "Were the opposition [Democrats] to take charge, Eisenhower anticipated an orgy of spending on defense and on social programs combined with a tax cut--a prospect he regarded with horror."(5) Of course, the cornerstone of Reagan's presidency was premised on two of those Ike horrors: big increases in defense spending and sizable tax cuts. …

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