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.


(Jim Watson/Getty Images)

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 Politics , Steven Levingston
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We need a pro-growth agenda that urges congress and the Obama administration to enact policies that bring tax rates in line with our global competitors. We need to keep chipping away at the deficit by taking steps to control wasteful government spending. See http://www.friendsoftheuschamber.com/issues/index.cfm?ID=104

Posted by: mld678 | September 30, 2009 1:34 PM

Comparing Obama to Reagan is nonsense. Of course Obama would have higher poll numbers if he pushed a 25 percent tax increase but that would only further exacerbate our economic woes and the deficit. Obama inherited an economic collapse, two wars, and 8 years of negligence by the previous Republican Administration. What would Reagan do with that mess. Further, what did Reagan really accomplish during his two terms that made us a better country? He dramatically increased the deficit without gaining any real benfits. Mr. Obama please don't listen to this siren song. The people who elected you are still with you as indicated by your positive poll numbers which are double the poll numbers for the Republican Party.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | September 30, 2009 2:01 PM

There you go again. Reagan never bothered with things like facts or the truth. He lowered tax rates which led to the richest 1% of the population earning more than the other 99% combined. The tax cuts did not pay for themselves, even though Republicants continue to lie and say they did. And the Reagan legacy with much of America is in sharp contrast to what conservatives think of him.
Obama's approach is different in that he relies on facts and the truth, something Republicants lost sight of many years ago.

Posted by: COLEBRACKETT | September 30, 2009 3:22 PM

"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."
=================

I disagree with this. The Congressional Republican party is in lockstep opposition to Obama, no matter the issue. When the de facto leader of the party says he wants Obama to fail, House and Senate GOP'ers will not be lining up to support the President. In fact, they will line up to apologize to El Rushbo is they somehow offend him.

Posted by: pdxer | September 30, 2009 7:36 PM

Politics is a game for some people, but for some people in public office, doing right is more important than winning the game. Mr Hayward says that President Barack Hussein Obama would "still get GOP votes for health care if he included tort reform or interstate purchase of health insurance."

The problem with that is that at least one of those ideas is a terrible one. Tort reform may be a good idea to some degree, but when Republicans against the Democrats' plan say that 70% of "defensive medicine" is not necessary, the immediate question that comes to my mind is how you know which is the unnecessary 70% and which is the 30% that might make that difference. Ultimately, I'm not so sure the savings that will come out of that is worth the cost.

But it's the other idea that's the bad one. Interstate competition is a good way for insurance companies to locate in a state that is trying to attract their business but doesn't have to worry about the consequences of the insurance companies' actions. Moreover, it is a good way for states to cherry-pick cheap-to-insure people while leaving the difficult (i.e., expensive) cases for someone else, and that will likely fall onto the government, which we as taxpayers will pay for.

Insurance works if everyone's in the pool, and this idea of interstate competition grossly undermines that. A ticking time bomb of a disaster that flies in the face of sound health economics.

Posted by: kushibo | September 30, 2009 8:24 PM

Reagan was a lousy actor and a senile president. Period.

Posted by: dlkimura | September 30, 2009 8:56 PM

I dispute that Reagan and Obama represent different sides of the political spectrum.

They both are from the same faction, the upper class conservative coalition, that has held this country in its grip since 1974.
Carter/Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush policies were all the same in essence, just differences in style and rhetoric. I'm waiting to see if Obama is different. He does not seem that different in policies from Bush (any of them), except he is not dedicated to screwing California and its economy and people like Bush was.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | September 30, 2009 11:11 PM

Steven F. Hayward

How do you justify your pretensions?

The GD Conservative Counter Revolution began with the political destruction of Nixon.

Carter is a right winger Democrat. He hates the working class. He established policies that helped the upper class by destroying the prosperity and political clout of the blue collar and union workers. He established the basic framework for neoliberalism, and appointed Paul Volcker to head the Fed. Reagan came along and became the salesmen of the conservative policies already in place, which became known as Reagan-ism, and these policies continues to this day.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | September 30, 2009 11:23 PM

The fact that they were very conservative jerks and anti working class...both charismatic, though Clinton did try more to help the people than Carter ever did...."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."

Posted by: WilliamBlake | September 30, 2009 11:30 PM

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