A Reagan Wantabe Who is No Ronald Reagan

by Derrick G. Jeter

The anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birth was Sunday, February 6, 2011. With much pomp and celebration, the Reagan Presidential Library put on a patriotic spectacular, with flags and speech and twenty-one gun salutes and music and a fly over. But the ghost of Reagan has been hovering in the political ether for a few years. Barack Obama first summoned Reagan’s spirit in 2008, during his own run for the presidency. While others were comparing Obama with Lincoln (both being from Illinois) and with Franklin Roosevelt (both being on the political left), Obama was making comparisons to Reagan. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Nevada, “in a way that . . . Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. [Reagan] tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, ‘We want clarity, we want optimism.’” [1] These are the things Obama sought to bring to the 2008 campaign: transforms, clarity, and optimism. He scored on optimism, failed on clarity, and it remains to be seen whether he will change the trajectory of America.
All of this came to mind because of Reagan’s birthday, and because of this week’s Time magazine cover of Reagan and Obama, with the caption: “Why Obama [hearts] Reagan.” But also because of something Obama said during Bill O’Reilly’s live interview before the Super Bowl. In responding to a question about how he’s changed since become president, Obama made this Reaganesque comment: “I will tell you that the longer I’m in this job, the more I enjoy it. The more optimistic I am about the American people. The more optimistic I am about this country.” [2] This could have easily come out of the mouth of Reagan, but Reagan’s optimism about the American people and America’s future was the antithesis of Obama’s.
When Reagan spoke of the people and the country, he meant “We the people of the United States”—the individual citizen who makes up the United States of America. When Obama speaks of the people and the country, he means . . . well, I’m not sure what he means, and I don’t think anyone else does either. It’s clear, however, that he doesn’t mean exactly what Reagan meant because Obama’s political philosophy steams from the opposite end of the spectrum from Reagan’s.
Reagan political philosophy was clear and simple. He use to joke—but the joke had an undercurrent of seriousness—“I’m with the government and I’m here to help.” In other words, as Reagan made famous in his First Inaugural: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Obama’s political philosophy is just as clear and simple: “My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” [3] Nothing could be further from Reagan than this admission, though Obama denied he was a redistributor during the O’Reilly interview.
For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see can make up their own minds about whether Obama’s philosophy is one on the socialist side or on the capitalist side of the spectrum. But one thing is true, Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.
[1] Barack Obama, as quoted in Michael Scherer and Michael Duffy, “The Role Model: What Obama Sees in Reagan,” http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,2044579,00.html, accessed February 7, 2011.
[2] Barack Obama, in “President Obama Sits Down with Bill O’Reilly Ahead of the Super Bowl,” http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/oreilly/transcript/president-obama-sits-down-bill-oreilly-ahead-super-bowl?page=1, accessed February 7, 2011.
[3] This is part of the famous exchange between then Senator Obama and Joe, a plumber from Ohio, during an impromptu discussion on the campaign trail in 2008.