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.