Saturday, January 29, 2011

Obama and Reagan

According to the cover story on Time, President Obama is trying to emulate President Reagan. The appeal is obvious. Reagan guided the country through the only post-war recession comparable to the Great Recession. Two years later his popularity rebounded to the point that he won re-election by 49 states to 1. He changed the way that we think about the government. The Republican party still defines itself according to his principles. What president wouldn't want that legacy? But can Obama carry it off? I doubt it. Obama is not Reagan.

It is hard to think of two more different presidents. Beyond the obvious, that Obama's principle goal is to reverse Reagan's changes the two men have nothing in common.

Reagan was the oldest man inaugurated president. Obama was the 5th youngest. Reagan came across as a figure full of grandfatherly wisdom. Obama comes across as cold and aloof. Reagan's confidants say that he was the same man in private as public. Obama is rumoured to be short-tempered and touchy in private - a trait that sometimes slips out.

Reagan came to office after a long, public career. He was a two-term governor of California and ran for president in 1976 before winning the nomination in 1980. Obama went from undistinguished state senator to president in four years. Reagan ran on a well-defined short list of goals. Obama made hundreds of promises but really ran on an undefined platform of hope and change.

Reagan always had to deal with the opposition and knew how to court them. The Democrats controlled the House during his entire term and the Senate his last two years but he managed numerous legislative successes. General opinion is that Obama will not be able to get any further major legislation passed now that the Republicans control the House.

Even before his inauguration, Reagan spent time "stroking" congressmen. He knew who they were and what their pet causes were. Obama's attempts at stroking the opposition began and ended with inviting some of them to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. While Obama has had significant legislative successes, they were accomplished by partisan arm-twisting.

Reagan was a trained actor and motivational speaker who knew how to connect with his audience. Obama has given a few good speeches but he is limited by his reliance on his Teleprompter. When he has it he looks back and forth like a metronome. When he has to use notes then he looks right, down, left, down, etc.

The State Department's strategy for a summit between Reagan and the Soviet Premier was to send Reagan in without an agenda and let Reagan charm the Russian. It worked. That's where the START arms control treaty came from. Obama has tried personal appeals to foreign leaders several times, ranging from one-on-one talks with the Chinese premier to lobbying the Olympic committee on behalf of Chicago. None of these have been successful. After the event, foreign leaders have described Obama as arrogant, dictating terms rather than negotiating.

Reagan's secret weapon was that he was constantly underestimated. His enemies insisted that he was a half-wit who slept through meetings and agreed with whoever had the best slide show. In contrast, Obama's abilities are overestimated by the outside world and by himself. When he took office he was expected to be the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and JFK rolled into one. He personally mused about which of these presidents he would be most like (along with Reagan). He has told staffers that his problem with appointing cabinet members is that he personally was the best candidate for most of their jobs.

Given all of this, there is no way that Obama can remake himself into a genial, self-effacing president and get the recovery rolling in time for the next election.

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