Is Obama the New Reagan?

Darrell M. West
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

July 8, 2008

The youthful and charismatic Barack Obama may often be compared to John F. Kennedy, but Ronald Reagan poses the more interesting parallel. Like the Republican who swept into the White House in 1980, Obama is an outstanding orator whose national political rise coincides with a grass-roots movement demanding fundamental change in America.

Many Democrats underestimated Reagan because of his inexperience, ardent ideology, and lofty but sometimes vague rhetoric. Yet the former Hollywood actor and California governor surprised opponents by leading a revolution in domestic and foreign policy. Aided by shrewd advisers and outside activists, Reagan cut taxes, slashed social service spending and ushered in a tough international stance. In so doing, Reagan became one of America’s most influential presidents in the post-World War II era.

Obama has the same capacity as Reagan to produce surprising changes, albeit with different policy objectives than Reagan. The Illinois senator, with a liberal voting record, has divergent views on virtually every issue from taxes and use of American force to health, education and welfare.

But like Reagan, Obama can motivate grass-roots activists on behalf of policy change. Record numbers of voters have helped Obama upset the favored Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. In state after state, grass-roots activists knocked on doors, wrote blogs, raised an unprecedented amount of money, and provided intellectual energy for the Obama campaign. Their fervor echoed the conservative activists who propelled Reagan to victory in the last century.

Also like Reagan, Obama holds the potential to use activists to reformulate this country’s prevailing public philosophy. His campaign message of change has activated supporters across the country and this grass-roots support gives him political capital with which to seek alteration in the status quo.

For three decades now, progressive forces have sat on their political heels. They have been afraid to utter the word taxes in public for fear of being labeled tax-and-spend liberals. Democrats have downplayed talk of government activism and using the public sector to help those in need. Many have been quiet on matters related to family and cultural values because they didn’t want to be seen as outside the prevailing mainstream.

Reagan captured the public trust as Jimmy Carter fell from grace and gas prices were a factor. Now, popular dissatisfaction with Bush’s handling of the Katrina debacle, the domestic economy and the Iraq war have given a fresh party another opportunity to reshape America’s governing philosophy. Armed with majorities in the House and Senate, a President Obama could reposition government as a solution rather than a problem. He could promote fairer tax policies, improve access to health care, and return America to a more consultative foreign policy.

Major redefinition does not come easily. Institutional barriers remain that will slow action, news reporting will focus on daily blips rather than the new president’s substantive priorities and citizen cynicism will make many Americans doubt his sincerity. Large-scale change may prove elusive even if Democrats control Congress and the White House.

Yet just as Reagan harnessed the financial, organizational and intellectual energy of activists, so could Obama. He can push the activists’ values, as Reagan did, but cannot pursue every idea that his supporters propose.

Most important, Obama should study Reagan’s style. Reagan was a strong leader who left an enduring legacy because he thought big, hired smart people, delegated details to staff and did not let the highest office in the land overwhelm him. Obama must keep his focus on broad vision and large-scale change, not minute policy details.

Obama may already have the political insulation that gave Reagan the moniker of the Teflon president. He has survived questions about his relationship with a fiery minister and his own controversial comments about small-town American life. In overcoming these landmines, Obama may have demonstrated that he is more like Reagan than many would like to admit.