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Like Obama, Reagan Faced Harsh Economic Times
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Like Obama, Reagan Faced Harsh Economic Times

Politics

Like Obama, Reagan Faced Harsh Economic Times
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now the man behind the stimulus bill speaks to Congress tomorrow night. This occasion invites comparisons with a previous president who inherited an economic crisis.

And NPR's Don Gonyea looks back at the first speech to Congress by President Ronald Reagan.

DON GONYEA: We've all heard President Obama's dire assessment of the current state of the economy. He's often said that things haven't been this bad since the Great Depression. President Reagan, after he took office, often used that same phrase. And in his speech to the Congress on February 18th, 1981, he ran the numbers.

President RONALD REAGAN: Interest rates have reached absurd levels of more than 20 percent and over 15 percent for those who had borrowed to buy a home. All across this land, one can see newly built homes standing vacant, unsold because of mortgage interest rates.

GONYEA: As for the jobs picture at the start of Reagan's first term…

Pres. REAGAN: Almost eight million Americans are out of work. These are people who want to be productive. But as the months go by, despair dominates their lives. The threats of layoff and unemployment hang over other millions.

GONYEA: Mr. Reagan then laid out his prescription: a four-point plan that would slash government spending, cut taxes, relax government regulations and use monetary policy to fight inflation. It was all vintage Ronald Reagan. Ken Khachigian is an attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. In 1981, he was President Reagan's chief speechwriter.

Mr. KEN KHACHIGIAN (Senior Partner, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP): He had three or four decades of firm philosophical beliefs, that he wanted his program to fit that template of his beliefs. He would not deviate from those principles. So while the speech itself, as I've reflected on it and looked at it over again, it's sort of boring. It's in the sense of the numbing numbers and discussions of budget cuts here and there and different items.

GONYEA: Khachigian said Reagan drove one basic theme home.

Mr. KHACHIGIAN: He made it clear: We've strayed from first principles, and we must alter our course. And President Obama's going to say something like the same, but it's going to be a different set of principles and a different course.

GONYEA: Different course, indeed. Twenty-eight years ago, President Reagan portrayed regulation as an onerous impediment to growth, while Mr. Obama has been strongly critical of a culture of deregulation that he says led to risky practices in the financial industry that ultimately pushed the entire economy to the brink. And where Ronald Reagan attacked government spending, with the exception of the Pentagon, Mr. Obama has just signed an unprecedented $787 billion stimulus package.

Tomorrow night's speech is part of a push by President Obama for public support for the hard steps still to come. Such a speech is an opportunity that only a president has. Ronald Regan was known as the great communicator. So what was the reaction to his speech 28 years ago?

Dr. GEORGE EDWARDS (Presidential Scholar, Texas A&M): There wasn't much public response. It was muted. His approval ratings did not change.

GONYEA: That's presidential scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M.

Dr. EDWARDS: That's right. President Reagan was not able to cause a substantial shifts in public opinion, and we shouldn't expect any president to be able to do that, particularly in highly polarized times.

GONYEA: President Obama will speak to a Congress where his party controls both the House and Senate. Ronald Reagan did not have such an advantage. Still, the recent battle over the stimulus bill is a sign of even tougher battles to come. The real value of a speech before a joint session is that the president can demonstrate that he has a plan and to help people see better days ahead. It also allows him to establish the terms of the debate in Congress and around kitchen tables and water coolers all across the country.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And, of course, many NPR stations will bring you live coverage of the president's speech and reaction to it tomorrow night. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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