Obama And Reagan: Different Ideals, Similar Tone

A composite photo of President Obama in 2009 and President Reagan in 1985.

There are parallels to be drawn between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, though they are very different ideologically. Getty Images hide caption

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On The Role Of Government ...

Obama said: What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Reagan said: Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.


On The Role Of Americans ...

Obama said: What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Reagan said: All must share in the productive work of this "new beginning," and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.

The rise of Barack Obama and the historic challenges facing his presidency have prompted comparisons to past presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But in these very early days, there are also parallels to be drawn between Obama and a more recent occupant of the Oval Office: Ronald Reagan.

It's clear that Obama and Reagan are very different ideologically, Obama being a Democrat on the liberal side and Reagan a Republican and an iconic conservative.

That said, "there's a lot more similarity between Reagan and Obama in their approach to government than people give credit for," says former Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican who served during Reagan's years in the White House. Edwards says it starts with tone, and he hears echoes of Reagan's first inaugural in Obama's.

Most people who remember Reagan's speech remember him saying government is not the solution. But Edwards recalls that Reagan also said this: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it."

Compare that to Obama's inaugural address, in which he said the question is not whether the government is too big or too small, "but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account."

Lou Cannon, who has written five books on Reagan, is struck by one common element in the two presidencies.

"In 1981, when Reagan was in office, it was as bad in unemployment as Obama faces, much worse in some areas," Cannon says. "We're talking about the two worst economic situations in Reagan's and Obama's that have been inherited since the Depression."

Cannon says the President Obama he's been watching for the past 10 days seemed to take on the role of president effortlessly, and that you have to go all the way back to 1981 to find a new leader who seemed as instantly comfortable in the job.

"They are both comfortable in their own skin," Cannon says.

The similarity of style in the transition was also apparent to Edwards.

"The sense of, we are going to provide you with competent leadership that is not full of certitude — we have ideas, we're going to try the ideas; if they don't work we'll try something else, but we'll get it done," Edwards says.

He says that approach tends to reassure the public, and polls seem to bear that out. Both Obama and Reagan saw their poll numbers jump dramatically between Election Day and the day each took office.

Edwards is one of a number of prominent Republicans who say they voted for Obama. The list includes several of Reagan's top advisers, such as Gen. Colin Powell and former Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein. Edwards goes so far as to wonder whether the former president himself, if he were still alive, might have thought about voting Democratic in 2008.

Cannon declined to speculate on that theory. "I don't know whether he would have ever voted for Obama. But what I think he would have been doing now is silently cheering for him."

It is clear that Obama has studied the Reagan presidency closely. During the Democratic primaries, he even got heat for admiring remarks he made about Reagan's leadership style and commitment to ideas.

No one seems to mind now, though, if the 44th president emulates those particular qualities of the 40th.

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