With his 2012 election victory, Barack Obama has secured a progressive hegemony in American politics reminiscent of the conservative one engendered by Ronald Reagan a generation ago. Both men arrived at their second term landslides following a remarkably similar path.
To begin with, each was an unlikely president. One was a former movie actor and television host whose apparent hard-line ideology led many, including his 1980 opponent, Jimmy Carter, to mistake him as unelectable. Carter hoped to run against Reagan—and got his wish. Obama had barely joined the Senate when he announced his presidential candidacy. He was variously seen as audacious, a long shot, all speech and no substance; the campaign began with a near consensus that he would be unable to overcome the Clinton presumption or the barrier of his race.
Reagan and Obama certainly had different visions for America, but in their first terms each set ambitious priorities and pursued them with a sure grasp of the rhythms of presidential power. They proved to be pragmatic. Reagan did little more to overturn Roe v. Wade than send a formulaic cassette tape to the annual National Right to Life rally a few blocks from the White House; the president who found time for regular naps was too busy to attend. Obama, who believes in public funding of reproductive services, reaffirmed the status quo forbidding such funding in order to achieve a larger and landmark legislative victory on health care.
Each understood that to succeed, he had to move early with big initiatives on a broad range of issues. Both proved prudent—Reagan more than we know—but neither was disinclined to take on tough and potentially unpopular fights. They were elected on a call for change, and whether they had mastered history or instinctively sensed it, each realized that great achievement came in the first years of a new presidency. More could come later, but only after a first round of breakthroughs.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama was assailed for saying, honestly and accurately, that “Ronald Reagan changed America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path.” Obama wasn’t endorsing Reagan’s policies, but acknowledging the transformative impact of his leadership.
Once in the Oval Office, Obama was Reaganesque in his reach, just as Reagan had been Rooseveltian in his. But for the two men, it wasn’t just the first hundred days that counted, but the first two years. In that period, Reagan passed a massive proposal for economic recovery—in the form of tax cuts that didn’t just tinker with the existing system but upended it—accompanied by budget cuts that rolled back much of the Great Society of the 1960s. (To get his way, Reagan used reconciliation measures that could not be filibustered in the Senate—the first time the procedure had been used on such sweeping legislation.) Obama’s first order of business was the largest economic recovery package in history; it included some tax-cutting, but primarily consisted of spending increases to simulate demand. One approach was conservative, the other liberal, but both men acted on a grand scale.
They sought and won the kind of “fundamental” changes candidate Obama had credited to Reagan. The Great Communicator became the great deregulator, the proponent of a process that continued almost unabated—and finally out of control—until the crash of 2008. Obama pushed through the health reform that had eluded progressives for a century. He, too, relied on reconciliation to finish the job.
Both presidents left other indelible marks in their first two years. Reagan appointed the first female justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, who for decades was the decisive force in upholding a woman’s right to choose. The conservative assumption, bordering on apologetics, is that Reagan stumbled into his pro-choice court choice; the better estimate is that he knew what he was doing, or if he didn’t, he was at least content with it. Obama appointed the first Hispanic justice—and the anti-Hispanic tone of the opposition, repeated in the subsequent immigration debate, further alienated a crucial voting block, which in 2012 supported Obama even more overwhelmingly than in 2008.
Reagan and Obama introduced new, paradigm-changing defense policies, adapted to their readings of the times. Reagan raised Pentagon spending 10 percent in his first year, rejecting his budget director’s counsel of restraint. He encountered fierce resistance, overseas and at home, to his deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe. His “naïve” belief was that the pressure of all this could crack the Soviet system; events ultimately proved him right.
With America now confronting very different threats, Obama reversed the settled doctrine of decades and renounced the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that observe the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He made exceptions for “outliers” like Iran and North Korea—and forswore, against the advice of his secretary of defense, the development of new nuclear weapons. He didn’t satisfy liberals who sought a “no first use” pledge—or Republican hawks who insisted that only the old way would do. His purpose was to deter potential proliferators and create a climate for international action to stop them. His “naïve” hope, shared by Ronald Reagan, was a world without nuclear weapons. At the signing of the arms control treaty to cut U.S.'s and Russia’s deployed nuclear warheads by 30 percent—to the lowest levels since 1960—he allowed that this hope might not be realized in his “lifetime.” But he claimed the high moral ground and laid the basis for the strong sanctions on Iran that came afterward.
Obama in effect challenged Senate Republicans to reject the arms agreement. But enough of them defected from the Party of No for him to gain the 67 votes required for ratification.
Reagan and Obama had their setbacks, too. The conservative stumbled when he tried to cut back a whole category of Social Security benefits—a proposal rejected 96-0 in the Senate. He then turned to a bipartisan commission that recommended raising the retirement age in stages and, when Congress agreed in 1983, the financial viability of the program was extended for decades. His progressive successor, mindful of that history, skipped Reagan’s first stumble on entitlement reform and, after the health-care debate, adopted the commission route. Obama also encountered resistance on a cap-and-trade proposal to counter global warming, and had to settle for a less ambitious energy bill.
Unemployment bedeviled both presidents as job growth lagged economic recovery. Their approval ratings fell and their parties suffered in midterm elections. Reagan’s lost 26 House seats in 1982, Obama’s about the same number in 2010. But, for their own re-elections, what ultimately mattered was the accelerating jobs growth during a recovery that continued picking up steam through their fourth year. The Reagan recovery started later; indeed, unemployment was 7.5 percent in the month he was renominated, just one-tenth of a point lower than in the month he had been inaugurated. But it had come down sharply from its high and with the economy moving decisively in the right direction, voters were ready to believe, as the GOP proclaimed, that it was “morning again in America.” Obama started with 8.2 percent unemployment; by 2012, an economy churning out jobs brought the rate far enough below that to convince the electorate that it was, as the president’s campaign finally phrased it, “a new day in America.”
Meanwhile, the calls to repeal health reform had withered, reduced to ritualistic incantations to satisfy the far right. This year, the Republicans had little to run on other than the deficit, which Obama was on course to reduce. It’s an issue that has far less traction in a recovery than in a recession, when a majority of people assume—in defiance of economic truth—that spending more than government takes in is the problem, not the solution to a collapse in demand. Indeed there is one last parallel here: Democrat Walter Mondale made the deficit a centerpiece of his 1984 challenge to Reagan. It didn’t work for Mondale then—and it failed spectacularly for Republicans in 2012.
Reagan’s landslide entrenched an era that lasted for more than a quarter-century. He had done big things, disdained the polls, weathered the political storms—and come through to a triumph that brought conservatives far more than his second term. From the other side of the spectrum, Obama has now finished a similar journey, ending the Reagan Era and forging one of the periodic realignments that redefine our politics.
Reagan might not have liked the outcome, but I believe he would have understood it—and perhaps even have admired Ronald Wilson Obama’s mastery in setting America on “a fundamentally different path.”