The Role Model: What Obama Sees in Reagan

Barack Obama realized long ago that Ronald Reagan was a transformational President who reshaped the nation and its politics. Now Obama is fashioning his own presidency to follow the Gipper's playbook

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Charles Dharapak / AP; Bettmann / Corbis

President Obama, left, and President Reagan

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This is where the Obama-Reagan comparison begins to break down. Lou Cannon, who wrote the Reagan biography that Obama read on vacation, points out that economic growth in the U.S. in the four quarters following the 1982 elections averaged a steroidal 7%. Most economists expect the U.S. economy to grow no more than half as fast this year. "If you were to say to anyone now that the U.S. would have a 7% growth rate in 2011, they would be writing the second Inaugural speech already," says Cannon.

Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff, believes that Obama and Reagan share some traits: both loners more than backslappers, both heavily reliant on their spouses, both more trusting of their instincts than their advisers. But the 44th President has some ways to go before matching the 40th in the communications department. "Obama for the first two years has tried to forge a consensus in Washington," Duberstein says. "He needs to take a page from Reagan and forge a consensus in America. Let his aides worry about the back and forth in D.C. He needs to be communicating with the American people."

When Obama's Jan. 25 speech soared highest, it streaked far above Washington's often pointless political skirmishes and spoke directly to the nation's pride. "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be," the President said, "I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth."


Right guard: Reagan fashioned a revolution that was positive and optimistic and found approval among both Republicans and Democrats


New centrist: Chastened by voters in November, Obama is leading his team back toward the middle

Blessed by Weakened Rivals
Historians have noticed that Obama's current situation shares one other similarity with the dark days of the Reagan era: the eroding unity of their opponents. Democrats were splitting in two in the early 1980s, into a labor-backed left and a new group of moderates who wanted to move the party to the center. Today, Obama faces a Republican Party that is struggling to reconcile its traditional, business-friendly wing and the upstart, impatient Tea Party faction. The split is starting to be distracting for the GOP. After Obama's speech, Republicans came back with two responses — one from the party's leadership and one from a junior Congresswoman from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann, under the Tea Party banner. Bachmann said she did not intend "to compete with the official Republican remarks," but that was exactly the effect. "It was problematic and confusing for the Republican Party," says Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for John McCain. When reporters asked McCain about the Bachmann rebuttal, he said with a wink, "It's a free country."

Reagan's fiercest defenders naturally are suspicious about Obama's bromance with Reagan. "He's been trying to unspool everything Reagan stood for," says one old hand. Nor is the Reagan role model something the President can really boast about to his nervous allies on the left. Obama will not take part in the 100th birthday celebration for Reagan at Simi Valley, Calif., in early March, though he may have something to contribute when a black-tie gala is held in Washington later this spring.

Obama invited Nancy Reagan to the White House 19 months ago, when he signed legislation creating a commission to plan for her husband's centennial. The meeting was cordial and generous on both sides. Nancy and Michelle Obama had lunch. Nancy, who in her ninth decade retains a healthy sense of humor, didn't miss a chance to point out one difference between Obama and her late husband. "You're a lefty," she said as Obama inked the Reagan commission into law.

"I am a lefty," Obama replied. A lefty who wants to be remembered just like Ronnie.

— With additional reporting by Jay Newton-Small, Katy Steinmetz and Mavis Baah

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