Obama's Reagan problem

Why did the president make the mistake of thinking he could work with the GOP? His mealy-mouthed support for the Gipper provides a clue.

By Gary Kamiya

Published February 10, 2009 11:35AM (EST)

Barack Obama is constitutionally inclined to be a conciliator and a difference-splitter. As a legislator in Illinois, he was noted for his ability to get different parties to come together. In both his books, he appeals for America to go beyond old labels and ideological pigeonholes. And in his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the speech that launched his national political career, he famously said, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America."

They're soaring words. Unfortunately, they're not true. And Obama (and America) has just paid a steep political price for his misplaced faith in bipartisanship.

The events of the last week proved that there is a liberal America and a conservative America. Singing "Kumbaya," Obama went hat in hand to the GOP to get their approval for his stimulus bill, and they spit in his face. Not a single House Republican supported it. And after frenzied negotiations that resulted in the Senate version of the bill being severely weakened, only three Republican senators said they would vote for it.

A reenergized GOP is comparing itself to the Taliban and crowing that it has rediscovered its "principles," which it mysteriously misplaced when a big-spending Republican was president. "We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," exulted Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. "What will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no," Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor said.

This is not a surprise. It was predictable that the radical ideologues who dominate today's GOP would reject any Democratic initiative that tries to undo the Reagan Revolution -- which is precisely what the structural aspects of the stimulus bill, which increase federal spending on education, healthcare, energy and aid to those at the bottom of the economic ladder, do. Why did Obama think that Republicans would sign off on a bill that implicitly rejects their free-market, tax-cutting, government-hating ideology?

Part of the answer is that Obama himself has defended aspects that very ideology. He has consistently praised Ronald Reagan.

Obama was widely, and legitimately, criticized on the left for saying during the campaign that Reagan "changed the direction of America" in a way that Bill Clinton did not. But that statement was gauzy and vague compared to what he wrote about Reagan in his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." "[T]he conservative revolution that Reagan helped usher in gained traction because Reagan's central insight -- that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie -- contained a good deal of truth," Obama wrote.

This is a classic piece of Obama rhetoric: generous, inclusive, slightly vague, staking out a both-sides-are-right position that appeals to the maximum number of voters. There's just one problem: It's totally false.

Just how did "the liberal welfare state" grow "complacent" under Democratic leadership? Which social entitlement programs would Obama single out as mismanaged or ill-conceived? How, specifically, did the alleged Democratic obsession with "slicing the economic pie" prevent them from "growing the pie?" And, above all, even if some entitlement programs were flawed, as no doubt some were, how could a liberal argue in good faith that those flaws justified Reagan's wholesale assault on the very idea of the safety net and on the progressive social agenda set in motion by FDR?

Obama does not say. And the reason he does not say, it seems clear, is that he doesn't really believe that "Reagan's central insight" was an insight at all, let alone that it "contained a good deal of truth."

No one argues that self-discipline, entrepreneurship, a vigorous free market, and the other virtues extolled by the Great Communicator are not good things. But Obama, like every liberal, surely believes that Reagan's adherence to trickle-down economics and other right-wing dogmas was disastrous (which Reagan himself implicitly acknowledged when, facing fiscal disaster, he raised taxes and greatly expanded the deficit and the size of the federal government) and that the Conservative Revolution he spearheaded sent America in the wrong direction. By vaguely claiming that Reagan's inspiring, morning-in-America message is synonymous with his deeply flawed presidency, Obama is obfuscating the crucial distinction between Reagan's ideals and his practices. He is scoring political points at the cost of intellectual coherence.

By praising Reagan, Obama was trying to present himself as a reassuring, all-American-like figure, a believer in hard work and personal responsibility, not just another orthodox liberal demanding more rights and entitlements. He was trying have it both ways: be a little bit of a free-market, anti-bureaucracy populist and a little bit of a big-government liberal. In other words, he was pandering to the swing voters, moderates and independents who decide elections.

Obama's all-things-to-all-people image worked well as a campaign tactic, but it is untenable when it comes to governance. You can't be a little bit liberal any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. At a certain point, you have to declare -- or decide -- who you are.

That moment has now arrived for Obama. By adopting a totally rejectionist stance, the GOP has made it impossible for Obama to reconcile his liberal vision of America with their conservative one. By, in effect, hitting him in the face and daring him to hit back, it has tested his mettle.

It might as well happen now. By drawing a line in the sand, claiming that the stimulus plan is the first step toward Communism or, as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford ludicrously said, "a savior-based economy," the Republicans have actually done Obama a favor, saved him from his worst compromising instincts. Obama's goal of moving America beyond its longstanding ideological differences is laudable, but it cannot be realized by pretending that those differences do not exist.

Obama is now taking his message to the American people. In Elkhart, Ind., hard hit by unemployment, he feistily argued that his bill will help working men and women and fired back sharply at his Republican critics.  And in his first press conference Monday night, he dismissed those who oppose "the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis," said that Republicans who had presided over a doubling of the national debt had no standing to attack "wasteful government spending," and said,  "What I won't do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested and they have failed. And that's part of what the election in November was all about." 


That's a good start. But as the debate continues, it is critical that Obama make it clear what the real stakes in the battle over the stimulus package are. No doubt some version of the bill will pass. But that will only be a tactical victory, and it will not change the political equation in Washington. There is a larger battle that must be fought.

The Republicans have made it clear that they are Obama's mortal ideological enemies, and he must treat them as such. Respectfully, politely -- but as enemies nonetheless. That means not shying away from challenging conservatism's sacred cows -- the blind obeisance to the market, the dogmatic reliance on tax cuts, the reflexive hatred of government. It means making it unequivocally clear that government can be a force for social justice, that tax cuts for the wealthy are both discredited as economic policy and morally outrageous, and that the extreme income disparity in America is unacceptable and destructive of our economy. And it means playing political hardball. Obama must aggressively make the point that it was Republicans and  Republican policies that got us into this mess and that the American people decisively rejected their failed policies and threadbare ideology.

Obama has begun doing that, but he needs to do it consistently. Instead of wandering around in some never-never land where the bloodthirsty lion lies down with the lamb, he needs to make it clear that the lion is a lion. In his press conference, Obama said he remains "an eternal optimist" about the possibility of working constructively with the GOP. If that civil rhetoric is merely tactical, a velvet glove covering the iron fist, it's unobjectionable. But if Obama truly believes he can find common philosophical ground with Republicans, and acts on that belief, he's dooming his presidency to mediocrity. He can cloak his arguments in the soothing language of bipartisanship, but the reality is that he needs to delegitimize the contemporary GOP in the eyes of the American people, make them see that it is an extreme party that has learned absolutely nothing from its catastrophic mistakes and has nothing to offer except obstructionism.

After the last eight years, that shouldn't be very hard to do.

Democrats have long been afraid of openly challenging the tenets of conservatism. There's some reason for this fear. There are deep conservative threads that run through the country: Americans are more mistrustful of government, more supportive of the free market, and more dubious about the welfare state than citizens of any other Western country. The word "liberal" has become tainted. And Reagan is deemed too sacrosanct to challenge.

But after the disastrous Bush years, Democrats can no longer afford the luxury of avoiding the confrontation with the American right and its toxic legacy -- or trying to gloss it over with pretty words, as Obama did with Reagan. And there will never be a better time to challenge the monster in the right-wing cave. It is talking tough now, but it is weakened and confused, and it has just been roundly rejected by the American people. Americans are in a crisis, and they are prepared to take a fresh look at old dogmas. As Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas pointed out in an insightful Newsweek article titled "We Are All Socialists Now," Americans suffer from cognitive dissonance about big government: They distrust it and say they don't want it, but want the things that only it can deliver. And with the great god of free market capitalism now revealed to have feet of clay to everyone who has (or had) a 401K, the time is ripe for an articulate and non-threatening liberal to explain to Americans why the federal government has a vital role to play and does not have to be the enemy of individual initiative.

His administration is not even a month old, but this is a defining moment for Obama. If he has the courage to challenge his foes, using his gifts as a communicator to rally the American people behind a generous and liberal vision of the future, he has the chance to fatally weaken the right wing. If he does not, he will give his enemies a reprieve and condemn his presidency to endless, destructive "compromises" with rigid ideologues who will never admit that their ideas have failed.

Obama is not a fighter by nature. And the last thing America needs is another eruption of false machismo in the White House. But it's time for him to say to the Republicans, "Bring it on."

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Barack Obama Democratic Party Republican Party Ronald Reagan U.s. Economy