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.