A democratic president, you'd think, would stick to Franklin D. Roosevelt or Jack Kennedy as role models. Not Barack Obama. As he faces tough times—economically and politically—I am told that he and his advisers are turning to an unusual source for inspiration: Ronald Reagan. Looking back, it shouldn't be a total surprise. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama said nice things about the Gipper. Reagan, Obama said, "tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to a sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." (Click here to follow Howard Fineman).
At the time, Obama's ode to Ronald seemed nothing more than a jab at the Clintons (who were infuriated), and a bid for Republican votes. But now I see that it was Obama's tell: the clue to how he views himself, politics, and the presidency. He thinks he is Reagan in reverse—a patient, genial game changer for the ages—and his confidence helped soothe the economic panic of a year ago. But it isn't clear whether the president really understands the causes of the Old Man's successes, or the sobering lessons of his failures.
There are some remarkable affinities, personal and historical. Like Reagan, Obama shares a celebrity's sense of comfort on the (public) stage, a belief in sticking to the script, and a faith in the power of the written word spoken from an imposing rostrum. He also shares Reagan's reverence for the power of a narrative in politics—Reagan, because he was an actor; Obama, because he is a writer. Obama came of age politically when he arrived on the mainland in the Reagan years. He watched Reagan attack with bold ideas the Carter era's sense of hopelessness and "malaise"; saw him and his party get hammered in the first midterm election in 1982; saw him, during a severe economic downturn, rebound to a sweeping second-term "morning in America" victory in 1984. Around the White House right now—beset by a weak economy and dire midterm election prospects—the story of the Gipper is uplifting, at least to the man in the center chair at the cabinet table.
As much as anything, the Reagan-Obama harmonic explains the president's decision to launch his tenure with a mammoth health-care-reform bill in the midst of economic chaos and heavy military commitments. Health care is his statist remix of Reagan's first-term launch party: the antigovernment supply-side income-tax cuts of 1981. And although a massive "stimulus" bill wasn't part of Obama's campaign plan, the measure was folded into his Reagan-in-reverse strategy. Obama fully expects Democrats to get clobbered in 2010, and then, he hopes, a revived economy will validate his decisions and win him reelection in 2012.
But following Reagan's script is harder than it looks. It requires an obstinate clarity of message that the current president has not always achieved, and an outsider's agitating stance that does not fit Obama's equable insider mentality. And while mimicking Reagan may be politically shrewd, it may not be fiscally wise. The Old Man's sunny optimism had a dark underside: a penchant for insisting that 2 plus 2 equals 5, and a willingness to ignore inconvenient facts.
There are signs that Obama shares these Gipperish traits. Reagan proclaimed that he could simultaneously cut taxes, double defense spending, and balance the budget. This was impossible, of course, as even his budget director eventually confessed. When he left office, Reagan had not shrunk the size of government, but he did spawn a new era of scary deficits. A generation later, Obama insists that his $850 billion health-care-reform bill will "bend the cost curve" in the long run. Almost no one in Washington believes this. I am waiting for his budget director to confess as much.
Obama isn't looking to Reagan—but should—as he deals with global security dangers. Reagan was a hawk. Yet he was very cautious about deploying troops without a "clear mission or strong odds of success," as Obama's own secretary of defense, Bob Gates, said recently, It is a lesson Obama should remember in Afghanistan. He might also study Reagan's dealings with the Evil Empire. He cornered the Soviet Union by amping up defense spending, then cut a deal to unwind the Cold War. Today the pressing issue is Iran. If Obama wants to be Reagan in reverse, he must find a way to use his Nobel street cred to rally the world against the bullies of Tehran. That might make us all safer, and make Obama a role model of his own.