The Paradoxical Presidential Similarities: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama

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Kort fra redaktøren: I forbindelse med hundreårsmarkeringen av Ronald Reagans fødsel den 6. februar holdt Hans Olav Lahlum et foredrag om likhetene mellom President Reagan og President Obama på Litteraturhuset i Oslo. Lahlum har gjort noen små endringer i manuskriptet, og du finner det kun her på amerikansk politikk.no.

I hope you will all understand that this is a demanding starting point even for a true political history freak like me – To fill up 40 minutes comparing these two presidents. The differences are much more striking than the similarities, both at the first and second look – Even if we keep aside the fact that one of them never got the Nobel Peace Prize, while the other one never should have gotten it that early in his career. I believe it is fair to say that Reagan, along with George W. Bush, is the most rightist President the United States has had after the Second World War, while Obama is the most leftist at least since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Reagan and Obama obviously have different race, age, party, ideology, different understanding of the economy, they were presidents in different time periods and worked within different contexts in the United States as well as in the world. One was an actor and the other is an academic. And it is certainly difficult to compare an incumbent president – in the middle of his career – with one having left office 22 years ago.

Still, I hope I have succeeded in finding six similarities and two possible similarities which can be relevant for the evaluation of Ronald Reagan’s position in U.S. history, as well as for the remaining years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

1. “THE AMERICAN DREAM”

The United States has had a long and unique democratic tradition, electing presidents every fourth year all the way back to 1789. From the very beginning, the founding fathers were very much aware and proud of not being an inherited monarchy, like the great powers from the “old world” in Europe. A remarkable part of this tradition, compared to countries like Great Britain and France, is that all the way since Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, many American presidents have made their way to the White House from lower ranks of society.

In different ways, both Reagan and Obama are modern examples of the American dream. Reagan was the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman having a hard time in the twenties and thirties, Obama the son of a foreigner having left both the country and his son in the sixties and seventies. Both presidents had been under severe economic pressures – if not poor – early in their life. And neither of them was, like a Kennedy or a Bush, born into political families with expectations for a political career.

Reagan obviously had a much longer career before he was elected president – he even had time to switch his party affiliation along the road. Starting up as a Roosevelt Democrat, he had a long development with his interest for politics as well as for his views about politics, not finding his final political form until he passed the age of fifty. Obama obviously started up much earlier and was more than 20 years younger than Reagan when he was elected president. But he also had a long way to the top, and although he was an ambitious person, he was not set on making a political career during adolescence..

2. “THE OUTSIDER CANDIDATE”

Partly following this, neither of them was a traditional Republican or Democratic presidential candidate. Reagan was too old and too conservative, Obama too young, too black and too liberal. And both were outsiders to the established political elite in Washington D.C. when they were nominated. Neither of them had held any positions of importance within earlier presidential administrations. Reagan had been in position when he was nominated, but never in Washington D. C. His political background was as a former governor in his home state of California, and he had never been a member of Congress. When Obama was nominated, he had spent some years in Washington D.C., but never in position. He was a member of the Senate, but he was not nominated on his Washington merits. Obama had been in Congress for only three years, and I am tempted to say he had been away campaigning about two of them. Both Reagan and Obama established themselves as outsider candidates at a time when the political milieu in Washington D. C. was discredited. Notably Reagan was still somehow running against the Washington establishment when he was re-elected in 1984.

3. “THE CHARISMATIC CAMPAIGNER”

Unfortunately, my library proved too large for me to find the exact quote, but Reagan reportedly once remarked that being able to get the message out to the voters is even more important than having a message to the voters. Both he and Obama have been criticized for being somewhat unclear about how they wanted to change things, but both still came to power on a demand for change. Both were doing well in debates against more politically experienced Washington politicians, and both mastered the gift of speech craft. Obviously it is wrong like some critics claimed that Reagan was a president working out only on television. But it is still correct that he was the best TV-politician of his time. So far the same can be said about Obama. One should never to underestimate this in the United States, and both also appeared charismatic in their direct meetings and small talks with politicians and voters. Both had the talent as presidential candidates to convince people that they were really interested in them and really cared about their situation.

Reagan – with his actor charisma and being politically well on line with his voters in the eighties – got away with saying many strange things, and often lacked the detailed intellectual knowledge one would expect from a president. Obama now has charisma and intellectual knowledge. Hence he can – at least so far – get away with being politically more liberal than at least 70 % of the American electorate. Interestingly, Reagan’s and Obama’s first election campaigns followed some of the same patterns. Both were running against a more experienced candidate in an open campaign, both were expected winners on Election Day, and both won some states with a larger margin than expected. Reagan got 51 % and Obama 53 % of the votes. Reagan still won more states, with a larger margin to his closest opponent – in a more complex election situation involving an independent candidate.

4. “THE CHANGEMAKER”

Reagan and Obama were both elected because of their personal qualities as charismatic leaders, and partly because they both offered a promise for a change to something better. Reagan came up several years after being written off as too old by many experts, following the turbulent seventies with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War trauma and the Teheran crisis. In that situation he successfully distanced himself not only from the Democratic Carter administration, but also from the Republican administrations of Nixon and Ford – as illustrated by his bitter fight against Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Four years later, Reagan came up as a presidential candidate later than expected. In 2008, Obama came up earlier than expected, efficiently using the chances offered by a then discredited and unpopular George W. Bush administration. He also distanced himself from the established Democratic Party and earlier administrations by defeating Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

Reagan and Obama were both elected in a situation many voters considered a national crisis, armed with inspiring promises for a moral clean up and a renewal of national strength. An obvious difference in their foreign policy program following the time and context is that Reagan was elected on a strong stand against communism, while Obama was elected on more dialogue also with the Islamic world. But both had optimistic slogans fitting the demands of their time. Same thing with their offers for a new economic policy, despite their different directions. Different times have different demands and different possibilities for different candidates. Eisenhower in 1952 is one example of a president elected on the slogan for stability. However, both Reagan and Obama were elected as change makers.

5) “THE POLARIZING PRESIDENT”

I will start here with a short quote from an international congress during the Cold War, I believe in the early eighties. Immediately after the speech from the representative of East Germany, the representative of Great Britain started his speech by complaining that the name of the country was misleading, because “the Deutsche Demokratische Republik is not at all Democratic”. True enough, but the answer he should have seen coming up was of course “Well, but Great Britain is not that great anymore…” Following this pattern it can well be argued that the name United States – in the current political climate – is if not misleading, then at least much less illustrating than it was during most of the Second World War and the Cold War years(Larry Sabato named his book about the 2004 election Divided States of America).

In 1984, Reagan won less than 60 % of the votes but still won 98 % of the states. Since then, the United States has seen a political polarization not only between the states, but also within almost all of them. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, presidential elections in the United States were apparently decided by about 22 % swing voters, circling in between 39 % Democrats and 39 % Republicans. As an illustration, in 1964 Democrats won 61 % of the votes after the Republicans nominated the rightist Barry Goldwater – the Republicans had the slogan “In your heart you know he is right”, but the Democrats successfully adopted “In your guts you know he is nuts.” Same story the other way around in 1972 when the Republicans won 61 % of the votes after the Democrats nominated the leftist George McGovern, promising that if he was elected the state would give everyone one thousand dollars.

After four years with George W. Bush in 2004, only 6-7 % swing voters remained, and elections consequently were more about mobilizing supporters than convincing swing voters. It remains to be seen how it will be after four years with Obama in 2012. The old polarization following the Civil War-footprints understandably became less striking as time went on after the First World War. We can talk about a second polarization somehow starting with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the thirties, but this was not too striking during the middle of the Cold War.

From the start of the eighties came a third wave of polarization, increasing during the Reagan years. As a person, George Bush is probably the least polarizing president in the last 30 years. But polarization still increased with the hard fought campaigns for and against Bush in both 1988 and 1992 – and the political platform of the Republican Party clearly went to the right although Bush was re-nominated in 1992. Later, and in different ways, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been increasing the new political polarization. We can probably talk about a new peak for this political polarization at the current moment, with Obama’s controversial health care reform and the growth of the Tea Party counterforce. Like Roosevelt, both Reagan and Obama were somehow the country’s most loved and most hated politician. Like Roosevelt, both have so far been able to deal with the polarization and mobilize just above 50 % of the voters, despite a large minority above 40 % and aggressively against them. Note that not so many presidents in modern times have scored above 50 %. In fact, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan are the only presidents from the last hundred years having scored above 50 % twice. Having scored 53 % in 2008, Obama can do it again in 2012.

But despite being polarizing presidents, I still think both Obama and Reagan can be described by the term…

6. “THE PRACTICAL PRESIDENT”

This is I believe best illustrated by their foreign policies. Typically Reagan was elected as a foreign policy hawk. But when the opportunity presented itself, the president elected on the most anti-communist rhetoric still changed strategy, went into dialogue, and made disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union in the second half of his period. Obama started as a dove and still believe in dialogue, but eventually adjusted to the hard realities of the world in his time as president – compare increasing number of soldiers in Afghanistan and not yet closing Guantánamo.

As a matter of fact, Reagan had to increase taxes in his second year as president. He obviously also had to modify himself in domestic politics during the last years of his period, partly following the new situation within the economy and international relations, and partly following the setback in the midterm elections. Obama pushed through his health reform but accepted a much less ambitious solution than he first planned. It remains to be seen whether Obama will move towards the political centre after the setback in his first midterm elections. Surely neither Reagan nor Obama believed like the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt that “Politicians who have a vision should go to see a doctor”. But I still believe that both Reagan and Obama can be seen as practical presidents understanding Otto von Bismarcks legendary remark that “Politics is the art of the possible”.

Following these six similarities, we will go on with two more “possible similarities” for the future.

7. “THE START OF A NEW ERA”?

First of all, it is definitely possible to be a successful president without starting a new era, one example again being Dwight Eisenhower. On the other hand, it is possible to be an unsuccessful president and still be very important for future development of politics and society. One can easily argue that for example Lyndon B. Johnson was such a president.

At the same time, presidents starting new eras tend to be more successful and important than presidents who do not. Mathematically speaking we might have one Democratic era starting with the election of Roosevelt in 1932, lasting until the election of Nixon in 1968. During these 36 years Democrats were in power more than 75 % of the time and never out of office for more than eight years and one president in a row. During the 40 years following 1968 Republicans were in power 70 % of the time, and never out for more than eight years and one president in a row. Still Nixon and Ford were both moderate presidents, not trying to roll back the reforms from Roosevelt and Johnson. Hence it makes sense, I believe, to consider the turbulent years of 1968-1980 as some kind of transitional era, before a new era starts with Reagan. Compare Sean Wilentz naming his book about US politics 1974-2008 The Reagan Era. Although Reagan moderated himself somewhat in power, his takeover started a turn to the right of American politics. Similar trends can be found in Western Europe: Margaret Thatcher (in Great Britain) and Kåre Willoch (in Norway) are still disputed, but also viewed as important prime ministers. Why? Because they (much more than most other prime ministers) changed the country and the direction of politics.

Obama’s situation is a bit unique because his election as the first black president (and by the way also the first black state leader elected for a country in North America, Oseania or Europe) alone makes him historical after 42 white men in the White House. Closest was Kennedy’s election in 1960 as the first Catholic president, but while much discussed, it was still less visible. Politically it is still a wide open game, all depending upon his politics and the election in 2012. Obama can still end up a great president like Franklin Roosevelt, an important president like Clinton or Kennedy – or a presidential failure like Carter. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s election in 2008 will be the start of a new era dominated by the Democrats, of if he will be like Carter and Clinton and end up like only a temporary break from the Republican dominance.

To start a new era like Reagan did, Obama must obviously win re-election in 2012. I will say some more about his chances – again pointing out similarities to Reagan – towards the end of this lecture.

8. “THE POPULAR, TWO-TERM PRESIDENT?”

We can obviously conclude that Reagan remained an electoral success, as he was very convincingly re-elected in 1984 and very popular in the polls when leaving office in 1989. Reagan did well in the midterm elections in 1982, but had a hard set back in 1986. I think we can already conclude that Obama will not be able to win 49 states in 2012, but that is partly following the increased polarization (it is very unlikely that Obama can win 59 % in 2012, but if he does, he will still not win 49 states). It is obviously way too early to conclude whether Obama can be re-elected in 2012 or not, and also way too early to tell if he, if he is still in office, can do well in the midterm elections in 2014 and/or the final polls of 2017. The first midterm election obviously went better for President Reagan than it did for President Obama, but the results’ impact on the presidential election should probably not be overestimated. The two most disastrous first-term midterm elections after the Second World War were Truman in 1946 and Clinton in 1994, and both were still were re-elected two years later on. Obama’s present poll numbers are on one the hand clearly not convincing, but on the other hand far from disastrous compared to earlier presidents who won re-election.

Both Reagan and Obama entered the White House in the middle of a recession. Obama’s starting point was probably more difficult than Reagan’s, partly following the national debt problem starting with Reagan and increasing later on, and partly because the recession faced by Obama was a more demanding and complex one. Like Reagan, Obama can very well be re-elected without turning the tide regarding the long term problem of the national debt. But it is still likely that if Obama wants to be re-elected, he will have to emulate Reagan’s first term. That means he will have to improve the short term economic factors affecting the voter’s everyday life – like the interest rate, the inflation, the growth rate and the unemployment rate. But the interest rate and the inflation are both low. In 2012, Obama probably needs improvements compared to both the 2008 and the 2010 rates regarding the growth and the unemployment. However, he might not need much more. Note that Reagan was safely re-elected in 1984 partly because of the improving economy and his populism, but also partly because he was Ronald Reagan and by far the most charismatic candidate. You might remember that his opponent Walter Mondale was a competent but not too charismatic candidate, as illustrated by his nickname “Norwegian Wood”…

After the Second World War only two presidents running for re-election have lost – Carter in 1980 and George Bush in 1992. During their campaigns, both eventually faced a painful “double trouble situation”, as the economy was in recession, while both candidates were less charismatic than their opponents. It is difficult to say whether charisma or the economy was decisive, they came to strengthen each other in both cases. Curiously but still: I tried yesterday to figure out the last election lost by a sitting U.S. president also being a charismatic campaigner, but I was unable to find such an election result – for sure it has not happened during the last 120 years. However, there are examples of presidents who saved themselves from a position far down in the polls by being more charismatic than their opponent during the campaign. The prime example being Truman saving an apparently hopeless position against Thomas Dewey back in 1948.

Furthermore, it seems likely that we in 2012 will have a situation where the incumbent president is re-nominated without much discussion, while the opposition party will have a hard dogfight about their nomination. Historically this situation tends to favour the sitting president. Compare Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004 – and remember that Reagan’s campaign in 1980 gained from the fact that President Carter went through a hard re-nomination fight. George Bush in 1992 is the anomaly: Losing although he was the sitting president and re-nominated (and losing despite foreign policy success). If the economy does not improve in the next eighteen months, Obama might well end up suffering Bush the elder’s fate in 1992, falling as a victim of the economy. However, Obama still appears so much more dynamic and charismatic, that I do not believe he will lose without a chance in the way Bush the elder did. My point is that unless the economy is getting even worse within the next 20 months, I believe the Republicans still need a charismatic candidate to defeat Obama. Preferably, the Republicans’ candidate has to be charismatic and fairly moderate – which might prove a real dilemma for the Republicans. For now the best news for Obama in Washington D. C. –like the situation Stoltenberg faces in Oslo – are the lack of signals from the opposition about a strong alternative coming up for the next election.

To conclude, whether Obama’s presidency is the start of a new era will to a large extent be decided by whether he can be elected for a second term – although it is not necessarily enough to be re-elected, but it is definitely necessary. I believe the two main questions deciding whether Obama can pull a Reagan and be re-elected for a second term, are 1) how the economy will develop in the third and fourth year of his presidency, and 2) what presidential candidate the Republicans can come up with. I believe Obama has a fairly good chance for re-election if he is lucky with the answer to one of these questions. The nightmare situation, in which Obama’s chances for re-election dwindles, will be if the economy does not improve, while the Republicans can come up with a truly charismatic candidate.

This had to be a brief introduction to two very interesting presidents. One can obviously find many more detailed similarities if you are looking for them. For example, Reagan never found a lasting solution in the Middle East, and it seems most unlikely that Obama will be able to do so. And whatever the year, Obama, like Reagan, seems very likely to leave a large deficit in the national budget and a growing national debt. But anyway I will now leave this scene, as a more competent successor is ready to explain you more about the economic policies of Reagan and Obama.

Hans Olav Lahlum, historiker og forfatter av Presidentene. Fra George Washington til George W. Bush. Oslo: Cappelen Damm (2008).

Foredraget ble holdt på årets Reagankonferanse som ble arrangert av Monticello Society og Republicans Abroad Norway.