Reagan and Obama

The Reagan centennial falls upon us as our current President passes the midpoint of his first term, so comparisons between the two were perhaps inevitable. 

Richard Benedetto provides a thorough example at Fox News.  Among the similarities he cites are that “both came into office faced by a serious economic crisis” and “both inherited wars.”  Isn’t that more or less true of every president?  Every one from Harry Truman to the first George Bush inherited the Cold War.  From Reagan into the unknown future, each will inherit the War on Terror. 

As for “economic crises,” it’s largely a matter of opinion and hindsight whether any given president “inherits” one, and precisely who bequeathed it to him.  Economic cycles don’t neatly correspond with four-year presidential terms; we just pretend they do, because otherwise the scribes of history have a hard time writing a coherent political narrative.

Benedetto asserts both Reagan and Obama “were expected to perform miracles on the economic and war fronts.  When they didn’t, many were disappointed.”  Whoever has those expectations needs to snap out of it, pronto.  We should expect our political class to obey the Constitution, and execute the will of the voters within those restrictions.  We’ll handle the miracles, thank you.

Expectations of Reagan were shaped by his fundamental confidence in Americans, from whom he did anticipate miracles.  Obama’s philosophy is grounded in a deep mistrust of the people, a conviction that they are incapable of dealing with the many, many things he wants government to take away from them.  He may be motivated by lust for power, or love of the helpless people he wants to take care of, but in either event, he did promise wonders – including, but not limited to, spiritual healing and the fall of the ocean levels. 

Could you imagine Ronald Reagan making promises like that?  One of the great differences between the two presidents is that “miracles” were expected by Obama’s supporters, and Reagan’s detractors. 

Benedetto proceeds to the conclusion that both Reagan and Obama faced difficult re-election bids – something else that will certainly be true of most modern presidents.  A large government is inherently polarizing, so the contest for its leadership will always be fairly savage, if measured from the halfway point of the first term.  Clinton and Bush looked that way, too, judged from the same perspective as we now compare Obama and Reagan.  Narratives that lead to “easy” re-elections don’t crystallize until the end of the term, rather obviously because the voters need a good look at the challenger.

Comparisons between Reagan and Obama’s approval ratings at the midpoint of their first term point out that their numbers are fairly similar.  In fact, Reagan’s were a little worse.  This would be a more useful comparison if we had a more universally balanced media, but slanted news and cooked polls produce too much static for a precise contrast.  What conclusions can you draw from noting that a man the media loathed with every fiber of their being had roughly the same approval rating as the one they love with nearly absolute devotion?  I’d say it mostly proves that bad stuff always happens, and voters are rather grumpy about it, until the campaign kicks into high gear and the incumbent convinces them to cheer up. 

Oddly, Benedetto slips in some editorializing about how Obama’s numbers are perking up because “he makes great efforts to show the people he is working tirelessly on their behalf.”  Really?  We mostly see him golfing or on vacation, to a far greater degree than any predecessor the media saw fit to criticize for such behavior.  Even his signature achievement, ObamaCare, is (correctly) viewed by much of the public as a half-baked mess that nobody even bothered to read.  Throwing piles of deficit loot at every imaginable constituency is laziness, not hard work.  No one respects a man who does his chores with a credit card.

There are many factors which contribute to the popularity of a President.  A lot of things happen on his watch, and he will inevitably be blamed or credited for many things he has little direct influence over.  Re-election depends on many factors: job performance of course, but also good salesmanship, poor opponents, a bruising primary campaign for the contender, and the news cycle.

In the end, I have a personal theory that voters judge a president by how they believe he looks at them.  That’s one of the reasons they re-elected Bill Clinton over the dour Bob Dole, or the embattled George W. Bush over the arrogant John Kerry.  Ronald Reagan’s love for America burst from him as light rims the edge of a cloud passing across the Sun.  Barack Obama spent last fall lecturing the American people that they weren’t intellectually capable of understanding the wonderful things he has done for them.  He’s got two years to convince voters he sees them as something better than a problem he wasn’t quite able to solve.