Reagan Lessons for Obama?
President Obama has the charm of a predecessor from the other side of the political spectrum: Ronald Reagan. What lessons might Obama take from the Gipper? We asked Steven F. Hayward, author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989," to weigh in. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
GUEST BLOGGER: Steven F. Hayward
President Barack Obama has rightly been compared to Ronald Reagan, both because of his strong communication skills and his personal appeal that makes him more popular than some of his policy ideas with many Americans.
But there are some important differences that indicate he is heading for trouble and disappointment.
Obama and his team were so intent on not repeating the mistakes of Bill Clinton's first year on office that they have overlooked the lessons of Reagan's first-year success.
The contrast with Reagan is instructive. At the 200-day mark of Reagan's presidency, he was repairing to his California ranch to sign into law his main objective - the 25 percent across-the-board income tax rate cut that was the centerpiece of "Reaganomics."
Even as the economy began a steep decline into serious recession in the fall of 1981, Reagan's job approval ratings held up at around the 60 percent level. More importantly, unlike Obama whose party enjoys large majorities in both houses of Congress, Reagan had to get his program through a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives whose leadership was relentlessly hostile.
This was one of the keys to Reagan's success, ironically enough; lacking a partisan majority, Reagan had to persuade a significant number of Democrats to back his agenda, making his program genuinely bipartisan. His tax cut passed the House with 48 Democratic votes, and the Senate vote was a lopsided 89-11.
The large Democratic majorities in Congress today are arguably Obama's curse, as it has seemingly relieved him of the necessity of achieving a genuine bipartisan basis for his agenda as Reagan did. One of the unappreciated asymmetries between the parties today is that the Democratic Party is more of a congressional party, while the Republicans are more executive-minded.
Starting at least in the 1970s, Capitol Hill Democrats figured out they could largely control the government through appropriations and oversight, which is how they effectively contested Nixon and Reagan. Hill Democrats don't like taking orders from the White House. This party difference explains why Presidents Carter and Clinton had a difficult time governing, while President George W. Bush was able to pass legislation with much smaller GOP majorities.
If Obama had been more clever, he could have put the GOP out of business for a decade, just as Reagan had Democrats back on their heels for his two terms. He would have gotten at least 50 GOP votes in the House for the stimulus if he'd included the GOP's top three ideas, and he'd still get GOP votes for health care if he included tort reform or interstate purchase of health insurance.
One other useful lesson from Reagan's first year is that Obama should find his equivalent of the firing of the air traffic controllers. Reagan's controversial act showed that he couldn't be rolled. Whatever the merits of Obama's decisions to let Clinton go to North Korea and to back out of the Eastern European missile defense deal, they make him look weak. The perception of weakness is fatal both on Capitol Hill and overseas.
By Steven E. Levingston |
September 30, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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