Dear President Obama, you’re no Ronald Reagan

Jul 5, 2015 by

By Kyle Smith –

President Obama wishes he were the Reagan of the Left. He has expressed the sentiment many times. What he doesn’t understand is that there were two Ronald Reagans. There is only one Barack Obama.

Reagan was both a galvanizing speaker and a canny leader, an inspiring idealist and a tactician who knew how to get things done. He could do the poetry, and he could do the prose.

Obama talks, then believes the issue over. He doesn’t negotiate, doesn’t engage, not even with other Democrats. He thinks the speeches are the job. It’s like thinking all there is to marriage is the proposal.

Our current president admires Reagan for taking the ship of state on a bold new course. He noted in 2008 that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not….He put us on a fundamentally different path.”

At dinner with a group of historians in 2010, he pressed them for Reagan’s secrets. “It became clear to several in the room,” Time reported, “that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln’s team of rivals or Kennedy’s Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier.”

Over Christmas break that year, Obama read a Reagan biography — Lou Cannon’s “Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” — and followed with an admiring piece for USA Today that indicated he was trying to internalize Reagan’s methods.

Trying, but failing.

The hate communicator

Obama was right to notice that “perhaps even more important than any single accomplishment was the sense of confidence and optimism President Reagan never failed to communicate to the American people. It was a spirit that transcended the most heated political arguments.”

He also praised Reagan as a unifier: “He understood that while we may see the world differently and hold different opinions about what’s best for our country, the fact remains that we are all patriots who put the welfare of our fellow citizens above all else.”

This last item seems like a whimpered request for a cease-fire from a tired and bleeding combatant. Having just been trounced in the 2010 midterms for pushing policies Americans did not want, Obama sought to convince the center-right he had alienated that he was at least trying to do the right thing.

Yet he proved unable to grant his opponents the same Reaganesque courtesy. Instead, he carried on questioning their motives.

Just last month, one lawmaker said that during a meeting with the president over trade agreements, “There were a number of us who were insulted” and that the president “tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity.”

And that’s a Democrat talking, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

As for Republicans, there is a long, rich history of Obama chiding them for supposedly putting nefarious “politics” ahead of country and advancing ideas that they know to be misguided.

For instance, Reaganomics — keeping a lid on spending and taxes in order to create more jobs and widespread prosperity — is not, Obama alleges, a policy that Republicans actually believe works. No, they only care about their rich friends, not “the welfare of our fellow citizens.”

“You can’t credibly claim that this vision is about helping working families get ahead,” Obama said of a Republican budget in March.

Opposition to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who backs Obama’s executive order on immigration, which he himself had conceded was illegal before he issued it? That wasn’t about a difference in principle (such as the principle of upholding the law) but about being “crazy” and “political gamesmanship,” Obama said in April.

Of Republicans who opposed the president’s Iran policy for being too soft on that country’s nuclear ambitions, Obama in March blasted “some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”

So “we are all patriots,” but Tom Cotton — one of the senators to whom Obama was referring, and an Iraq War vet — happens to be an Iranian patriot.

It’s a song Obama is forever singing: Opposing me means you must hate the country. In August of 2011 Obama said “what’s holding us back” is that “some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.”

Wisdom of taking 80 percent

Why does Obama keep impugning his opponents’ motives? A couple of reasons. One: Attacking the GOP means easy applause lines, and he loves applause. Two: He is frustrated. He wishes he were prime minister, not president.

Negotiating with Congress wasn’t something he much thought about when he promised his 2008 voters that they were on the verge of “fundamentally transforming” (as he thinks Reagan did!) the United States.

Obama doesn’t like negotiating, he doesn’t have any experience with it, and he isn’t good at it. What he’s good at is giving speeches. There is only one Obama: The Talker. If the speech doesn’t work, he has nothing left except petulance and executive orders. But what is carried out by the stroke of one president’s pen can be undone exactly the same way.

Reagan enacted lasting changes by keeping separate the best outcome and the best possible outcome. He could step down from the podium, roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.

“Reagan: The Life,” by historian H.W. Brands, is a study of the two Reagans — the man who gave speeches conservatives loved, and the man who worked with Congress to pass incremental reforms. “If Reagan told me once, he told me 15,000 times — I’d rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying,” said Jim Baker, Reagan’s first chief of staff and Treasury Secretary.

Reagan compromised on tax cuts, partially undoing his mammoth 1981 tax break in subsequent years. He compromised on Social Security, expanding it while dropping an early proposal to roll it back, and he expanded Medicare despite having once been its most vocal opponent. He even increased funding at the Department of Education, which he had vowed to destroy.

How is Obama’s track record, outside of executive orders and a health-care law saved by a friendly Congress and the courts?

Consider the relatively simple issue of minimum-wage hikes, which normally occur regularly just to keep pace with inflation. Seven such raises passed between 1990 and mid-2009, but none since.

Only once in the Obama years has the minimum wage risen, and that was the result of a law signed by President George W. Bush that was phased in over three years beginning in 2007.

In other words, if Obama can’t get something done in the next 18 months, he will go down as the first president since Reagan to fail to sign a national minimum-wage hike. You can almost hear the ghost of the Gipper chuckling. “Well, you wanted to be like me, didn’t you, Barack?”

The minimum wage isn’t ISIS or global warming. This is the routine stuff. Yet Obama bungled it anyway, by being first impractical, then impossible. In 2013 he pushed for a 24% raise. That went nowhere. Then Republicans increased their numbers in the House and took over the Senate. So, what was Obama’s next bid? To demand a 39% increase, earlier this year. Obama is like the prom date who says, “Susie, I know you said you don’t want to make out, so how about if we go all the way?”

Thanks to inflation, minimum-wage workers are now effectively earning 8% less than they were in July 2009.

‘Most important spectator’

Brands’ book has been called “free of the partisan ax-grinding and mostly free of the mythmaking that characterizes much of the Reagan bookshelf” by The New York Times. Brands didn’t vote for Reagan, but he places the 40th president alongside Franklin Roosevelt as the two standout political figures of the last century.

“In certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater than Roosevelt’s,” Brands notes, pointing out that Reagan had to deal with a Democratic House of Representatives for his entire presidency.

Will a future historian who didn’t vote for Obama compare his accomplishments to FDR’s, much less state that he is in some ways “greater” than Roosevelt? The idea seems somewhere between unlikely and absurd.

“Roosevelt and Reagan were at once idealists and pragmatists,” writes Brands. “Each understood that a successful president provides a compelling vision for the long term while making concrete progress in the short term. Each understood that presidents are not czars; they must deliver what the people want, even as they try to make people want something different and better.”

This sounds like an implicit critique of Obama, some of whose harshest attacks are coming from the left. In Harper’s magazine, Yale professor David Bromwich blasts Obama for his “peculiar avoidance of the business of politics.”

Bromwich nails the One Obama: “Governing has no relish for him. Yet he works hard at his public statements, and he wishes his words to have a large effect.”

In an earlier essay in the London Review of Books, Bromwich called Obama “the world’s most important spectator,” marveling at the chief executive’s seeming inability to even be aware of major problems bedeviling his administration until reading about them in the papers.

Assessing why the Obama revolution failed, Bromwich delicately considers the topic of Obama’s rapid rise to the highest office in the world, which came before he had acquired any leadership experience whatsoever. This has been the first on-the-job-training presidency since George Washington’s.

Reagan had twice been elected governor of the largest state, and before that had developed tough negotiating skills as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. All of this presented him with abundant understanding of the collaborative nature of politics.

In Obama’s case, “The string of departures from his own stated policy showed the want of connection between his promises and his preparation to lead,” writes Bromwich in Harper’s. “The weakness was built in to the rapid rise that carried him from his late 20s through his early 40s. His appreciative, dazzled, and grateful mentors always took the word for the deed. They made the allowance because he cut a brilliant figure.”

In Cannon’s words, Reagan found the presidency “the role of a lifetime.” Obama, Bromwich says, “entered the presidency as an unformed actor in politics.”

Obama’s failures derive from a combination of incompetence and intransigence: Obama doesn’t know how to work the gears of politics, but he’s also too arrogant to learn.

American celebrity No. 1

Even Obama’s victories are tied up with his failures: Only by losing both houses of Congress to the Republicans did he clear a path for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the NAFTA of the Pacific. (Harry Reid prevented trade deals from coming up for a vote when he ran the Senate.) It’s a measure of how little we expect of Obama these days that we all wondered whether he had the juice to marshal Republican support for a Republican idea.

“I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless,” Obama boasted to comic Marc Maron in a podcast interview. It was a signature Obama quotation, a reminder of the inwardly directed gaze of the man who began working on his memoirs as soon as he finished law school.

It was the kind of answer you’d expect from someone who gets paid to be himself — American Celebrity No. 1. It seemed intended not to make us feel good about ourselves but merely to assert, with a slightly pathetic bravado, that our chief executive feels pretty good about himself. Isn’t that enough?

No one believes it’s morning in America, but at least it’s a fresh dewy dawn in Obama’s mind.

Source: Dear President Obama, you’re no Ronald Reagan | New York Post

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