Reagan and Obama: Pragmatism Ascendant

By John Tierney

The cover article in the most recent issue of Time magazine asserts that President Obama sees Ronald Reagan as a role model.  In their article, Michael Scherer and Michael Duffy examine how and why Obama finds Reagan's presidency instructive. 

Over on The Atlantic Wire, Alex Eichler responded to this latest contribution to Reagan-Obama mania by putting the whole preoccupation under the "Cliché Watch" category -- a move that any sentient observer would have to agree with.  (Type "Obama and Reagan" into "search our site" bar at the top of The Atlantic's site, and you'll see how common such comparisons on The Atlantic site alone.)

Still, as someone who regularly yields to the magnetic pull of a good cliché, I can't resist adding to the pile. To me, looking back at the Reagan presidency is a good reminder of what happens to both liberals and conservatives when they come to power.  As much as the two camps may be divided from each other while campaigning for office, it's once in office that the interesting splits occur.

Much of what has been written about the parallels between Reagan and Obama focuses on the similarity of the circumstances they each faced during the first two years after being elected and their experience in that first set of midterm elections.  For example, Time's Scherer and Duffy write:

Just as Reagan's revolutionary agenda coincided with a historic recession, massive employment and a humbling defeat in the 1982 midterms, . . . Obama's new spending programs coincided with a historic recession, deep unemployment and midterms that cost the Democrats control of Congress.

These parallels are quite fascinating.  But to me, what's most interesting about looking back to the Reagan experience is to see what lessons it holds for Obama's efforts to grapple with the tension between the the forces of ideology and the realities of governance.
Once in power (by which I mean, once they have control of the White House), both liberals and conservatives tend to divide into two factions.  On the one hand, there are the keepers of the faith or the true believers of either set of doctrines; on the other, there are the pragmatists -- the people who are willing to sacrifice or amend the doctrine in order to achieve some desired result in policy making.  

When they are running for office, liberals and conservatives typically promise the voters that they will establish a brave new world once they are elected, but the changes they actually are able to put into effect after successful campaigns are usually very small in comparison with their promises.  (This is true, incidentally, not just of those who ascend to the White House, but also of new congressional majorities, as demonstrated by, say, the Republicans' admission, one day after taking power in the House earlier this month, that their pledge to cut $100 billion from the budget in one year is impossible.)

In other words, both liberals and conservatives discover, once in office, that talking about governing (that is, campaigning) is one thing, but that governing is another.  Governing requires that compromises have to be made; principles have to be bent, or on occasion abandoned.  The world of ideology abounds with great expectations about the possibility of radical change, but the existing political system, as it operates on a day-to-day basis offers only limited opportunities for any such radical change.

President Reagan certainly found limits on his pursuit of ideological goals.  While his more radically conservative advisers were coming up with idea about, for example, "privatizing" the Social Security program, he soon discovered that the system had come to be regarded by the middle class in American society as a fixed entitlement that they had already "bought and paid for" -- to use his own famous remark about the Panama canal.  (George W. Bush was hit in the forehead with a similar discovery when he squandered the political capital he gained from his 2004 re-election victory by spending most of the following year unsuccessfully campaigning for a similar plan to privatize Social Security.) 

As a result, only the most modest and incremental kinds of change in Social Security proved to be possible during Reagan's administration -- things like tightening up on government payments to disability beneficiaries.  And even this small change was challenged in court and eventually over-ruled in Congress.

Paradoxically, if the beneficiaries had not rejected the proposal, Reagan's chief legacy in the area of Social Security policy might have wound up being a very considerable expansion in the system itself.  During Reagan's last months in office, a "catastrophic health insurance" plan was added on to the existing system.  After protests from beneficiaries over the taxes they would have to pay to finance this new program, the plan was repealed by Congress in 1989.  (It's hard to ignore in this context the additional paradox of George W.'s big legacy to entitlement spending -- the enormously expensive Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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