Today would have been Ronald Reagan’s hundredth birthday, and Time’s recent cover story, "The Role Model: What Obama Sees in Reagan”—with its photoshoped picture of Ronnie’s arm around Obama—has largely been met by derision on the right, including Rush Limbaugh: “Here comes Time magazine and the rest of the Drive-By Media trying to tell us, and Obama himself trying to tell us that he’s Reagan…. Well, we know what he really thinks about Reagan.”  

It is true that Obama, in his memoir, did say opposition to the “dirty deeds” carried out by “Reagan and his minions” pushed him into politics, citing in particular Reagan’s intervention in Central America and support for apartheid in South Africa. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Reagan’s actions directly led to the deaths of over 200,000 people, genocide against Mayans and the exile of over a million refugees. It’s a safe bet to assume that this blood-soaked legacy won’t be mentioned in many of today’s birthday celebrations, though Time did obliquely admit that Reagan “backed what Obama called ‘death squads’ in El Salvador”—an interesting use of secondary attribution and scare quotes that would be akin to Der Spiegel writing in the 1970s that that Hitler “backed what Willy Brandt called ‘death camps’ in Poland.”

But Obama has also praised Reagan, if not for his policies then his rhetorical skills, which shifted the debate in the United States. Reagan came to power in 1980 at the head of a powerful ascendant political coalition—the New Right —that offered a solution to the multiple, cascading domestic and foreign policy crises of the 1970s, and in the process pushed the tottering New Deal coalition to the sidelines.

Reagan did have impressive rhetorical skills. But he also was lucky enough to have the winds of history at his back: a coherent new intellectual class, the neocons, gave his vision focus and legitimacy, and a gathering secular and religious grassroots right backed it up with political power. Most importantly, Reagan could leverage a stagnant but still astronomically capitalized New Deal political economy: tax cuts, privatization, deregulation, the shifting of the government resources away from the Northeast industrial rust belt to the South, Southwest and West, and the breaking of unions combined to unleash the United States’s considerable productive power, leading to impressive growth rates. Underwriting it all was a quickly metastasizing financial sector that helped off set falling wages with cheap credit, putting into place an economy that not just generates successive bubbles but depends on them to generate profit. 

Nation contributor and political theorist Corey Robin once pointed out that George W. Bush was to Reagan what LBJ was to FDR. Just as Johnson presided over domestic and foreign policies (the Great Society, civil rights and the Vietnam War) that “heightened the contradictions” of the New Deal, Bush also tried to have it all: extreme neoliberalism at home and extreme neoconservatism abroad. It all came crashing down in 2008, and many did hope that Obama would be a transformative president in the style of Reagan, someone who could not just preside over a political realignment but give voice to a new social compact, a commonsense way of imagining the commonweal—an alternative to the remoralization of the market that took place under Reagan.

That Obama has so far failed is not really his fault. Unlike Reagan, the winds of history are decidedly pushing against him. You can only privatize the New Deal once.  

But Obama shouldn’t be let off the hook, for as a student of Reagan he has missed an important lesson. The real Reagan—as opposed to the myth on display today—actually repeatedly disappointed his base, on any number of issues. At one point during his second term, the right was so fed up with his timidity in confronting the Soviet Union that they branded him a “useful idiot” for his willingness to negotiate arms reductions with Gorbachev. There were other conservative criticisms, over judicial appointments, welfare, abortion, prayer in school and high tax rates. But Reagan never lectured his base on the need for pragmatism and compromise. On the contrary, he constantly presented a conservative vision of a world as it should be, not as it was.   

Obama and his spokespeople do the exact opposite. Frustrated with a stalled legislative agenda, they lash out at what Robert Gibbs called, last August, a “professional left” that won’t be “satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Imagine Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, complaining in 1982 that the “professional right would not be happy until the federal government abolished welfare, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same rights as people, and our top personal tax rate fell below 50 percent”—a wish list that has indeed been fulfilled. Last December, progressives angry at the White House’s tax-cut extension got an earful from the president himself: “This is a big diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people.” But Reagan’s skill was exactly to take a narrow conservative vision and translate it into a universal vernacular.  

Obama should indeed take a page out of the Gipper’s playbook and keep the progressive vision he claims to stand for as the Tea Party keeps its muskets: clean.

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