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But in Obama's story line, Reagan has been more than just the antagonist. As the 1980s rolled on and Obama matured, Reagan became a model for leadership. The attraction was less substantive than stylistic and instinctive. Both had strong mothers and dysfunctional fathers. Both prided themselves on bringing people together. Obama even conceded that he sometimes felt the emotional pull of Reagan's vision. "I understood his appeal," Obama recalled in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. "Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies." The Great Communicator, it seems, had struck a chord.
This admiration stayed with Obama after he rose to the U.S. Senate and as he weighed a run at the White House. In late 2006, his top strategist, David Axelrod, laid out an Obama-as-Reagan theory of the race. "I remember talking about the fact that this had the potential to be one of those big-change elections like 1980," Axelrod says now. "The Republican project seemed to have run out of gas." Axelrod believed the political pendulum, which had swung left with the New Deal and had been reversed by Reagan, was once again reaching the end of its arc.
Among Obama loyalists, the Reagan theory was received wisdom, and for political reasons it was closely held. In January 2008, Obama broke cover. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Nevada. "He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, We want clarity, we want optimism." Obama's comments inflamed the Democratic left (not to mention the Clinton operation), but his aides thought little of it at the time. "I basically told headquarters, 'Sorry I didn't call this in,'" remembers Gibbs, who was traveling with Obama at the time. "I had just heard him say this so many times."
In the 2008 general election, Obama's aides saw their challenge as the same one Reagan faced against Jimmy Carter: a need to demonstrate authority and credibility to the American people, many of whom thought Reagan might not be suitable as Commander in Chief. While Reagan solidified his support in a televised debate with Carter, Obama did it by outmaneuvering John McCain with his far steadier handling of the financial collapse. Obama's campaign team even sought for a time to stage an event at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan made history.
Theory into Practice
Shortly after the election, reporters Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson asked Obama if he thought his victory marked the end of the Reagan era. "What Reagan ushered in was a skepticism toward government solutions to every problem," Obama said. "I don't think that has changed." But then he went on to say he believed his election would spell "an end to the knee-jerk reaction toward the New Deal and Big Government." In Obama's mind, his election was not an endorsement of the outsize government role that Reagan battled bureaucratic, ever expanding, self-interested but a cry for government that could carry out its basic missions more effectively. "I think what you're seeing is a correction to the correction," Obama explained.
That's not the sort of slogan that fits easily on a bumper sticker. One reason was that, unlike Reagan's, Obama's central theme remains somewhat mysterious. No one was unclear about Reagan's guiding philosophy: "Government is the problem," he declared on his Inauguration Day, and by then he had been saying it for nearly 20 years. Obama's is more complex. He wants to reset the public's attitude toward government, reverse 30 years of skepticism and mistrust and usher in a new era in which government solutions are again seen as part of the answer to the nation's ills. But the yearlong health care debate only reminded Americans of government's tendency to slow things down, muddle the choices and perhaps make them more expensive. A September Gallup poll found that 7 in 10 Americans had a negative impression of the federal government; they used words like too big, confused and corrupt to describe it. Obama's signature initiative, a vast expansion of the federal role in health care, has mostly polled under 50% since mid-2009.
Yet even the midterm wipeout has become part of the borrowed Reagan script. For months, aides like Axelrod warned Obama to expect a drop in the polls like the one Reagan suffered during the 1982 recession. Reagan "wasn't the Great Communicator then," notes one senior Obama aide. Just as Reagan's revolutionary agenda coincided with a historic recession, massive unemployment and a humbling defeat in the 1982 midterms, the story went, Obama's new spending programs coincided with a historic recession, deep unemployment and midterms that cost the Democrats control of Congress. As the 2010 elections approached, White House aides struggled to recast press expectations in the mold of Reagan's early struggles. "The most analogous election to the midterms probably isn't the environment Clinton faced in 1994," argued communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "It's the one Reagan faced in 1982."