Political Hay

Does Obama Really Admire Reagan?

Just the way he did in 2008, right?

By 1.25.11

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The day before his State of the Union address, President Obama took to the pages of USA Today to sing the praises of Ronald Reagan. And why not? With the Reagan centennial is less than a fortnight away it can do Obama no harm to write a few kind words about The Gipper. Obama thus begins his tribute:

Ronald Wilson Reagan was a believer. As a husband, a father, an entertainer, a governor and a president, he recognized that each of us has the power -- as individuals and as a nation -- to shape our own destiny. He had faith in the American promise; in the importance of reaffirming values like hard work and personal responsibility; and in his own unique ability to inspire others to greatness.

Obama's words are nice, pleasant and inoffensive. Yet in reading them there's something that seems boilerplate about them. It's as if he's going through the motions. If you remove the references to governor and president, Obama could have very well been writing about Neil Diamond.

So does President Obama admire the 40th President? Yes he does. But not in the manner expressed in the USA Today article. If one wants to know what Obama really thinks about Reagan one should consider his remarks before Democrats in Columbia, South Carolina, as he was battling Hillary Clinton in that state's primary in January 2008:

Folks are talking about how I supposedly said how wonderful Ronald Reagan was. (Laughter) Now let me tell you what I said just in case you're getting it third-hand. (More laughter) What I said was that Ronald Reagan, back in 1980, was able to tap into the discontent of the American people and he was able to get Democrats to vote Republican. They were called Reagan Democrats. Remember that? And what I say it is that we as Democrats right now should tap into the discontent of Republicans. (Applause) I want some Obama Republicans. (More applause) I say Obamacons. (Laughter) So I didn't say I liked Ronald Reagan's policies. What I said was that it is the kind of working majority that we need to form in order to move a progressive agenda forward. (Applause)

Now it is true that a few days earlier Obama, while being interviewed by the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, had described Reagan as a "transformational figure." Yet it must be noted Obama stated, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way Bill Clinton did not." So one could read Obama's comment as a means by which to diminish Bill Clinton and by extension Hillary Clinton rather than to elevate Reagan. Obama's subsequent remarks in South Carolina seem to confirm this line of reasoning.

So Obama, ever the community organizer, admires Reagan as a conduit by which "to move a progressive agenda forward" (read: liberal agenda or socialist agenda). Obama admires Reagan only in the sense that he aspires to be to progressives what Reagan is to conservatives. But given Obama's disdain for Reagan's policies, I have a bit of a hard time believing when he praises Reagan for his ability "to work with leaders of all political persuasions to advance the cause of freedom, democracy and security around the world, including reducing nuclear weapons and imagining a world, ultimately, without nuclear weapons."

After all, let us remember the issue of nuclear disarmament is what drove Obama's passion that when he studied at Columbia University in the early 1980s. Indeed, in March 1983 Obama penned an article on the subject for Sundial, a campus magazine in which he expressed support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty "as a powerful first step towards a nuclear free world." So are we to believe Obama thought highly of Reagan's ability to work with world leaders during his administration's arms buildup of the early '80s? It's difficult to contemplate Obama viewing Reagan's "we win, they lose" approach towards the USSR as anything but simplistic and jingoistic. We can only imagine what Obama thought when Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." Or how about when Reagan refused to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative when Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate nuclear weapons? I am certain Obama would have gone, well, ballistic. Of course, there is certainly nothing Reaganesque about the new START Treaty with Russia. If Reagan were alive and kicking he would have opposed Obama's approach to national security with every fiber of his being.

It is, of course, smart politics for President Obama to express his admiration for Ronald Reagan. Yet conservatives understand that Obama's admiration for Reagan is a mile wide but an inch deep.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.