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Obama is the Reagan of 2012
Newt and Mitt are clambering over each other trying to claim the Gipper's mantle. But it's a Democrat whose situation and rhetoric best mirror Reagan's
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
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ewt, who was defenestrated in the Florida debates, is marching to the beat of his own manic drummer toward defeat in the Sunshine State and into an unfriendly February schedule with no surcease of setbacks. Meanwhile, Mitt, riding the overwhelming throw-weight of his negative ads, moves a little less stiffly and a lot more aggressively toward a begrudged nomination.

Along the way, they're quarreling bitterly over who's truer to Ronald Reagan. The charge that Gingrich isn't or wasn't is as far-fetched as a near-term colony on the moon. But no matter: Romney, who will say anything or shift any position, has the resources to convert a bald-faced lie into a convincing dividing line. It's rich hypocrisy, literally rich, from a candidate who in 1994 pleaded that he was an independent in the Reagan years — "I don't want to return to Reagan-Bush" — and who in the 1992 Massachusetts presidential primary voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas rather than casting a Republican ballot for either Bush the first or Pat Buchanan.

The GOP is on the verge of selecting the most patently phony nominee in either party since the original empty suit named Warren G. Harding. 

Obama, like Reagan before him, offers an overarching theme that resonates with the distinctive mood of his re-election year.

It was Harding who famously said: "I like to go out into the country and bloviate." And lost in this year's bloviating combat over the Reagan banner is another reality that will at first rile and finally infuriate Republicans as the opportunistic Romney runs and then stumbles toward a November showdown with Barack Obama. For on the evidence of history, it's likely that Obama will be the Reagan of 2012. 

The one is certainly not the ideological heir of the other. But this president is beginning to travel a path along an emerging political landscape that parallels Reagan's in potentially decisive ways.

First, both men had to cope with deep recessions — and Obama with a downturn more global in scope that threatened actual depression. Mid-term, both men looked as if they could be one-term presidents. In the Harris poll, Reagan collapsed from 67 percent approval to 56 percent disapproval in just 11 months; Obama's standing has never been that dire. 

Then the Reagan economy started to recover. Unemployment, which had peaked at 10.8 percent, was 8.3 percent by the time Reagan delivered his election year State of the Union message in 1984. This month, the corresponding figure for Obama was 8.5 percent — down from a high of 10 percent.

Both presidents could report a measure of progress to the country. Reagan said: "Inflation has been beaten down" — and then talked about the millions who were now finding jobs. Obama said: "In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs." He pointed to the rescue of the auto industry: "Today General Motors is back on top as the world's number one automaker." But both presidents were also tempered. Reagan's words — "We know that many of our fellow countrymen are still out of work" — strikingly pre-figure Obama's reference to "a time when millions of Americans are looking for work."

Neither of them wanted to sound complacent — the trap that George H.W. Bush fell into when he acted as if the recession was already over in 1992, which it technically was, but which persuaded voters that he was out of touch with suffering and insecurity across the nation. Within weeks, challenged in his own party in the New Hampshire primary, a beleaguered Bush would glance at a file card on his podium and blurted out: "Message — I care."

Reagan and Obama, both finely attuned to the public mood, launched their election years by claiming, yes, a lot had been done, but there was a lot more to do. People had a dawning sense they were right — albeit sooner and stronger with Reagan. After his State of the Union address, Reagan's approval, which had bottomed out at 35 percent a year before — a depth Obama has never plumbed — rose to 54 percent in the Gallup poll. This January, in the NBC/WSJ survey, Obama's approval rose five points to 50 percent — and he's defeating Romney by six and Gingrich by 11. 

In early November of 1984, voters thought unemployment was down to 7.4 percent. (In fact, it was 7.2 percent, but that report didn't come until after election day.) Until then, no modern president had won a second term with a jobless rate above 5.6 percent. What the Reagan experience shows is that the absolute number doesn't matter, but the direction does. Today, virtually every forecast, including that of Ron Paul's "Evil Empire," the Federal Reserve, estimates unemployment higher than the Reagan level this November, nearer 8 percent, but going down. And lately, the forecasts have been serially revised to catch up with the faster pace of job creation.

The usual caveats apply, now more than in 1984. In a globalized world, events elsewhere, especially in the eurozone, could slow or derail growth here. But Obama shares a second trait with Reagan that has already strengthened the prospect for sustaining the recovery: He's principled, but pragmatic. 

Reagan, who would make a deal on Social Security with Tip O'Neill and a deal on immigration reform with Ted Kennedy, also raised taxes after cutting them when that made economic sense. In his 1984 State of the Union speech, he even boasted of a decidedly progressive measure: "I have requested for E.P.A. one of the largest percentage increases of any agency." As I've argued before, Reagan would be excommunicated as a RINO in today's  GOP.

Similarly, Obama, to the consternation of his base, agreed to keep the Bush tax cuts through 2012 in return for a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment compensation. This — dare we use the word? — stimulates the economy and boxes in Congressional Republicans who can't afford to block a renewal of the payroll tax break and unemployment benefits lest they appear to be rooting for a slowdown — and then get blamed if it comes.

Third, Obama, like Reagan before him, offers an overarching theme that resonates with the distinctive mood of his re-election year. 

On one side of the spectrum, Reagan's call in 1984 was for "limiting the size and scope of government" — presumably excepting defense, his own tax increases, and spending on E.P.A. Coming after the assumed failures of government in the Carter years, this was a powerful message, especially against the Democratic nominee, Carter's Vice President Walter Mondale, who became a poster boy for the alleged excesses of the past. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Obama has trumpeted his own overarching summons to an America "where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." Such an appeal rides on and reinforces the rising tide of public opinion in America today. And while it's not just about taxes, but about reining in Wall Street speculation, rebuilding manufacturing, and opening up innovation and educational chances, the narrative can be summed up — and the president has done so — in the "Buffet Rule": Why should a billionaire pay a lower tax rate than his secretary? That's not the heart of Obama's purposes, which have far more substance, but it is a symbol which surely connects. 

It connects as well to Mitt Romney, who looks to be in Mondale's unenviable position as the proof-point of his opponent's message. His GOP rivals have seeded the ground for attacks on his "vulture capitalism" at Bain. Moreover, in the NBC/WSJ data, nine times more Americans reacted negatively than positively to the release of Romney's tax returns and his loophole-exploiting tax rate. In the same survey, his overall favorable/unfavorable ratings have sharply declined — and are now underwater. And that's before we hear more — far more from Democrats — about his job-destroying business record along with new demands to reveal his tax returns for a number of years, as Obama has done. The natural course for Romney would have been to put out all the returns since he started running for president in 2007. The only reason not to was if he paid little or no taxes at all in, say, 2008 or 2009, or was hiding money in other tax shelters overseas. 

Romney is the face of the Republican establishment — and he's becoming the face of unfairness in America. Will voters really send that kind of CEO to the White House? And what will Romney have to say for himself if the economy is on the upswing? The Mondale experience suggests that hammering away at the deficit will then yield only a deficit of votes. 

Finally, while sharply etching a defining difference, Reagan and Obama delivered election year State of the Unions that were aspirational, explicitly bipartisan, and most of all, patriotic. They evoked the same ideal: Reagan asked for "a rebirth of bipartisan cooperation," Obama for "building consensus around common sense ideas." And the exemplar Obama invoked was "America's Armed Forces...They work together." It was a clever way to get credit for national security's success by giving the credit to others. It was exactly how the Reagan of 1984 celebrated the U.S. victory in Grenada as he pointed to a sergeant in the House gallery. "You and your fellow service men and women... set a nation free." 

The conventional wisdom holds that Obama's masterful conduct of foreign affairs won't count for much in this election. But in 1984, as Americans gained confidence in the economy and worried about switching horses in the middle of the recovery, the ambit of salient issues widened and Reagan's record and strength overseas came to count for a great deal. This, too, could happen to Obama — and right now, to me, it seems more than likely that it will. Indeed, a renewed crisis abroad — for example, an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities followed by a U.S. confrontation with Iran — would almost certainly lead Americans to rally around the president. 

History has lessons — and also unexpected events hidden in the recesses of the future. The latter we cannot predict; but on the basis of what we know now, in the politics of 2012, Gingrich isn't the Gipper, and Romney isn't Ronnie.

It's the other guy, the Democrat who in 2008 presciently — and controversially — praised President Reagan for "chang[ing] the trajectory of America." He did so amid the winds of an economic storm that finally and slowly cleared. So, in his own landmark achievements, has Barack Obama — and this election year, the trajectory is turning for him as it once did for Ronald Reagan. 

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