In May 2010, Barack Obama invited a small group of presidential historians to the White House for a working supper in the Family Dining Room. It was the second time he'd had the group in since taking office, and as he sat down across the table from his wife Michelle, the President pressed his guests for lessons from his predecessors. But as the conversation progressed, it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln's team of rivals or Kennedy's Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office. Obama and Reagan share a number of gifts but virtually no priorities. And yet Obama was clearly impressed by the way Reagan had transformed Americans' attitude about government. The 44th President regarded the 40th, said one participant, as a vital "point of reference." Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan's diaries and attended the May dinner, left with a clear impression that Obama had found a role model. "There are policies, and there is persona, and a lot can be told by persona," he says. "Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion."
When Obama stood before Congress, the Cabinet and the American people to deliver his second State of the Union address, both the Reagan persona and policies put in appearances. He proposed a freeze in discretionary spending and federal salaries, a push to simplify the tax code and billions in cuts to the defense budget, and he made new calls for a bipartisan effort to repair Social Security. Each of these had been proposed before by another third-year President coming off a midterm defeat in a period of high unemployment. "Let us, in these next two years men and women of both parties, every political shade concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government," Reagan said in his 1983 State of the Union, "not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics."
At a glance, it's hard to imagine a President who had less in common with Reagan than the Ivy League lawyer from Hawaii who seeks larger federal investments, a bigger social safety net and new regulations for Wall Street and Big Oil. But under the surface, there is no mistaking Obama's increasing reliance on his predecessor's career as a helpful template for his own. Since the November elections, Obama has brought corporate executives into the White House, reached out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and made compromise his new watchword. He signed a surprise $858 billion tax cut that would have made Reagan weep with joy and huddled with Reagan's former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein for lessons learned when the Gipper governed amid economic troubles. Over the Christmas break, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted that Obama was reading a Reagan biography, and just to confirm the bond, Obama recently wrote an homage to Reagan for USA Today. "Reagan recognized the American people's hunger for accountability and change," Obama wrote, conferring on Reagan two of his most cherished political slogans.
Every man who occupies the Oval Office discovers that the place is haunted by both the achievements and the failures of his predecessors. It is only natural for them to ask, How will I stack up? Where will history rank me? And do I really belong here with the likes of Washington, Jefferson and all the rest? LBJ worried constantly about Eisenhower's opinion. Reagan often modeled himself in style on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whom he cast his first vote for President, in 1932. George H.W. Bush asked himself, Can I be another Teddy Roosevelt? When George W. Bush was asked after his first term whether he thought more or less highly of any of his predecessors, he replied that having sat in the chair himself, he thought more highly of all of them.
Obama's affection for Reagan's political style carries with it a clear self-interest. White House aides gaze fondly at the arc of the Reagan presidency in part because they pray Obama's will mirror it. Both men entered office in wave elections in which the political center made a historic shift. Both faced deep economic downturns with spiking unemployment in their first term. Both relied heavily on the power of oratory. "Our hope," admits Gibbs, "is the story ends the same way."
What Reagan Taught Obama
In many ways, the Gipper gave Obama his start. Obama's first public political act occurred on Feb. 18, 1981, just 29 days after Reagan took the oath of office in Washington. The 19-year-old sophomore, who had just abandoned the nickname Barry for his birth name Barack, climbed onto an outdoor stage at Occidental College to urge his school to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. "There's a struggle going on," he called out. "I say, there's a struggle going on." As he spoke, Reagan was already laying the groundwork to shift U.S. policy on South Africa in the opposite direction, giving cover to the all-white government under a policy called constructive engagement.
In the years that followed, Reagan would come to epitomize all that Obama opposed. Reagan cut social spending in America's cities, backed what Obama called "death squads" in El Salvador and began to build what Obama regarded as an "ill conceived" missile-defense shield. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote later, recalling the classroom debates in his courses on international affairs. When he graduated from Columbia in 1983, Obama decided to become a community organizer. "I'd pronounce the need for change," Obama wrote in his memoir. "Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds." A decade later, he was still at it, leading a 1992 Illinois voter-registration effort aimed at breaking the Reagan coalition's hold on his state's electoral votes.