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The War of the Presidents: Reagan Battles Obama in 2010

Reagan conservatism takes on Obama progressivism as voters flee to followers of late president.

By 1.5.10

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Now it begins.

The iconic election contest of the new century: Barack Obama versus…Ronald Reagan.

In one corner of the ring: progressivism/statism/liberalism as championed by Obama. In the other: Reagan conservatism/individual liberty and freedom. It will be a knock down, no-holds barred fight, with Obama progressives already on the ropes, the consequences and costs of but one year of Obama in power with an Obama-controlled Congress having been driven home to startled Americans.

Neither Obama nor the late President Reagan will have his name on a ballot anywhere this election year. President Obama does not face the voters for another two years, and former President Reagan, of course, passed from the scene in 2004.

Yet in a high-speed culture in which politics is conducted in the short-hand of sound-bites, the 2010 election can be easily summarized by the last names of the two presidents immutably identified with their respective governing philosophies, making the first national election of the 21st century's second decade a virtual War of the Presidents. It will beget one simple question. Are you Reagan or Obama?

There is a reason that the Obama White House repeatedly attempts to drag George W. Bush back into the arena beyond Bush's unpopularity with the electorate. The reason? It's one thing to take on the unpopular and very much alive Bush, who left office with a 22% approval rating in a final CBS News/New York Times poll. It's another thing entirely to take on the revered Reagan. Gallup polls in 2001 and 2007 -- one each three years before his death and three years afterwards -- had Americans ranking Reagan as either America's greatest president or number two -- right behind Lincoln.

Yet one has to hand it to Obama's advisers. In the guise of fixing this, that or another alleged "mess" that has been, as Obama likes to say, "inherited" from Bush, it is now abundantly clear that the Obama White House game is to use Bush as the excuse to instigate what former Vice President Cheney recently called "what seems to be the goal of his presidency: social transformation, the restructuring of American society."

But the social transformation and restructuring of American society from…what?

Answer: the American society and structure that Ronald Reagan set in motion from the moment his own hand came off the inaugural bible 29 years ago this month. A society in which, between 1981 and 2008, almost 45 million jobs were created and the Cold War was not only won outright but the Soviet Union vanished atop what Reagan once called the ash heap of history.

Americans, tired of Bush in 2008 and soothed by the perception of Obama's moderate tone, have spent the last year moving from expectation to uncertainty to concern to alarm and finally furious anger over the approach of the Obama administration. Shocked recognition has set in that whether the subject was the stimulus bill, the state of American car companies, banks and financial institutions, the incessant trips abroad to apologize for America, the hesitation on winning the war in Afghanistan, the effective seizure of the private health care system or bringing the 9/11 terrorists to New York for trial instead of treating them as military combatants, not to mention the piling up of untold trillions in debt -- no matter the subject, invoking Bush was and is a cover for the real game.

The real game?

For Obama to remake America from the bottom up into a statist utopia as long envisioned by American and European "progressives." To fundamentally change -- forever -- the role of government in everyday American life. To remove as much individual liberty and freedom as they can get away with and replace it with government control, on the old theory that only economic and political elites can correctly order the affairs of the average man and woman. Making of America a quasi-socialist state on the model favored by leftists of one stripe or another for all or parts of three centuries. If the Obama progressives could manage it, the idea would be to drop the "quasi" altogether.

The dog that doesn't bark in this scenario?

The same relentless attacks on Reagan that have been directed at the unpopular Bush and Cheney. There are none. Why?

"Perhaps the most cogent exposition of the conservative political philosophy….was made by a professional actor, Ronald Reagan," wrote Arthur Krock, the curmudgeonly dean of the New York Times after Reagan's famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, more prescient than he could know. Both in his lifetime and since, it is Reagan alone who has been the most successful spokesman for the opposition to the left-wing "progressive" philosophy Obama is out to impose on the country. And in one form or another, on one issue or another, it is Reagan that Obama has been trying to overturn -- not George W. Bush. Hence, the strategy: attack the unpopular Bush always, the legendarily popular Reagan never. Blame Bush -- while repealing Reagan.

THE REAGAN-OBAMA POLITICAL WAR of 2010 goes far, far beyond the mere coin of personal popularity.

The fact, of course, is these opposing political philosophies belong to neither Obama nor Reagan. They are merely the embodiment of competing ideas of governance that have evolved over centuries. Reagan's is to be found in the writing and thinking of the likes of Adam Smith, John Locke, Edmund Burke, and his contemporaries like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater. Obama turns to Rousseau, Marx, Bismarck, John Dewey, Saul Alinsky, and like-minded contemporaries exemplified by the likes of now-resigned Obama White House aide Van Jones.

Yet it is Reagan and Obama who are, in 2010, the very public faces of these arguments.

The differences between the two presidents can be summed up in pithy fashion by each:

Reagan, on February 5, 1981: "Our aim is to increase national wealth so all will have more, not just redistribute what we already have, which is just a sharing of scarcity."

Obama, on September 6, 2001: "But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.... And one of the I think the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement was because the Civil Rights movement became so court focused I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change and in some ways we still suffer from that."

Each man as president was true to his word and his respective beliefs, actively pursuing them as president.

But the outcomes show a huge difference, not for the first time in contrasting the results obtained by these philosophies whether in America or in other nations around the globe. 

Reagan's philosophy did increase national wealth. The results speak for themselves. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economy expanded for a record-setting 212 months between the time Reagan's economic program took hold in November of 1982 and March of 2001. The only downturn -- and it was brief -- occurred during the nine months from July of 1990 to March of 1991. The U.S. Labor Department records that during the same time period 41.6 million jobs were created, the total rising to 44.6 million by the time George W. Bush left office. 

In stark contrast, the first year of Obama has resulted in a loss of 4 million jobs, in spite of the massive $787 billion stimulus package Obama insisted would both create jobs and keep unemployment at 8%. Unemployment is now at 10%. Obama has now produced the worst one-year record of job creation by a presidential program since the end of World War II -- which is to say in 70 years.

These results are not accidents. They are not bad luck. They are not twists of fate. They are the results of the application of two very different governing philosophies: Reagan's, which insists that low taxes, limited government and freedom for the individual will produce good jobs and increase prosperity for all. And Obama's, which insists that high taxes, massive government and more government control will produce good jobs by policies that forcibly, in Obama's words to Joe the Plumber, "spread the wealth around."

The key difference in 2010 is that both philosophies in the conservative versus progressive standoff have had decades if not centuries to show their stuff. Neither is perfect, yet without doubt the evidence is in -- and the progressive ideal that more government control of American life, replete with even larger bureaucracies and less freedom and liberty for the individual, is losing. Big Time.

This Reagan-Obama battle will produce political results because of this -- indeed in 2009 it already produced Reaganite governors of New Jersey and Virginia -- as more and more Americans look back at Reagan's accomplishments and understand them in relation to Obama's results.

Again, the polls show exactly why the Obama White House clings to attacks on George W. Bush. Gallup tells us that the generic ballot split for Republicans and Democrats leading up to the 2006 elections, when Bush was heading towards his last two years and his unpopularity was rising, had an eleven point difference, with Democrats leading 51% to 40%. After barely one year of an Obama presidency, with conservatives from talk radio to Fox to bloggers to potential presidential, congressional and gubernatorial candidates picking up on the Reagan theme in reaction to Obama's aggressive progressives, Gallup reported in November the GOP has closed to a 2-point deficit in the generic congressional ballot, 46% to 44%.

The Reagan-Obama divide is also apparent in the media, with seemingly unconnected stories delivering the news of what happens when Obama's "progressive" view of the world holds sway over Reagan's conservative view. Here are two stories from Sunday, neither of which mention Obama or Reagan -- yet illustrate clearly the effect of each philosophy.

New York Post, January 3, 2010: "Economy dooms top vintage shops" reports the paper in a tale that never mentions Obama once. It doesn't have to. The results of the progressive tax ideal speaks for itself, impacting vintage-clothing shops in Manhattan's East Village. How? The owner of one shop, which has catered to the tastes of Madonna and Paul McCartney, blames high taxes and is picking up and moving -- to Hoboken, New Jersey. The shop's customers in New York "don't have the money."

And what's going on in New Jersey these days? Republican Chris Christie is taking office after winning an upset in the governor's race promising a Reaganesque cut in taxes. The results? Christie won because of the return of the "Reagan Democrat" and Independents to the GOP fold -- stunning New Jersey political observers by carrying counties like Gloucester and Middlesex -- both home to huge numbers of blue-collar voters.

New York Times, January 3, 2010: "And Now to Our Left: More Relics of the Bust" is a particularly telling revelation of the Obama/progressive mindset. Again, Obama is not mentioned. In an extensive story on the front page of the Business section, reporter Peter S. Goodman tells of the foreclosure epidemic in a bus tour of Cape Coral, Florida. What is the result of this economic catastrophe in the eyes of the (presumably) progressive-minded reporter for the famously left-wing Times? Why, nothing less than the "undermining of the American dream." And how is that dream undermined specifically? "Unemployment was soaring, and tax revenue was plunging, forcing cuts in government services and intensifying anxiety." 

Got that? The American Dream, wonderfully and succinctly stated in the progressive mindset, is not about opportunity, freedom and individual liberty. No, the American Dream is about "government services." And just how could such a wonderful thing as government services be threatened? After thousands of words there is only a brief passing reference in this Times story to what was in fact a major cause of this economic devastation. Referring to the real estate agent who is the focal point of the story, the reporter says (emphasis mine): "He deals primarily in houses owned by Fannie Mae, the government-backed financier." Which is to say, the lust for government services (Fannie Mae) has threatened the American Dream of…government services.

And what's the hot political news out of Florida these days? The rise of young Reaganite House Speaker Marco Rubio in his U.S. Senate race against Republican Governor Charlie Crist -- who made a point of embracing both Obama (on a trip to Florida) and the philosophy behind the Obamanomics stimulus, the very ideal of what got Cape Coral and the rest of the country into trouble in the first place.

In two completely unrelated new stories in two different New York newspapers, a quick if unintentional glimpse is seen of the Reagan/Obama divide in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

The Reagan worldview says high taxes costs jobs, the Obama world view believes that a solution of high taxes to support more bureaucracy will "spread the wealth." 

But the real life effect of progressive economics as applied in the first story has the store-owner fleeing New York City for tax-friendlier New Jersey, spreading the wealth elsewhere because, in the owner's words, "people don't have the money" in progressively minded high-tax New York. Why? Because in New York, as with the reporter in Cape Coral, Florida, the progressive view of the world is that the American Dream is "government services." And what was the cause, in considerable measure, of the housing crisis? The "government service" that is Fannie Mae. And what did we just learn about the "government service" that is Fannie Mae? That the Obama Treasury Department has abruptly lifted the $400 billion cap on potential losses for Fannie Mae (and Freddie Mac), raising the limits on what these twin failed gems of progressive thinking can borrow.

Somewhere Ronald Reagan is shaking his head -- with a smile.

Why not? Six years after his death he's in another furious political fight with yet another progressive president. And Barack Obama is doing the best Jimmy Carter imitation since, well, Jimmy Carter.

Buckle in.

The War of the Presidents has just begun.

And Reagan is winning.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.