Whether you love him or hate him, no one can rightly deny that Ronald Reagan was a transformative president. As President Obama put it before he was elected:
“I think 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.”
The election of Reagan signaled an end to the New Deal era, which had endured for nearly half a century. After the 1980s, American politics shifted steadily to the right of the political spectrum, with Bill Clinton accelerating the Reagan revolution with his bi-partisan neoliberal reforms. This is why Reagan remains such a beloved figure for those on the right. Even though he would be considered a RINO today, he is worshipped by Republicans, while loathed by progressives. (And yet, most progressives would probably choose Reagan over any current GOP presidential candidate.)
After serving almost as many years as Reagan, President Obama recently compared himself to the 40th president, more or less saying that he was the Democrat’s Reagan, while the next Democratic president (i.e. Hillary Clinton) by that logic would be Bush 41. Unfortunately for progressives, however, Obama cannot really be considered the Democrat’s Reagan. He has been much less transformative than supporters once expected him to be, and he has not fundamentally altered America’s trajectory, as Reagan undoubtedly did.
Sadly, this is partially due to him being a black man, which many white Americans simply weren’t ready for — but more to do with his politics, as I discuss below.
The most significant difference between Reagan and Obama is that the former was an idealist, while the latter is a pragmatist. Or, as Felix Salmon put it in a recent article: Reagan was a hedgehog and Obama is a fox. These labels were first popularized by the great philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, in his essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which divided historical writers and thinkers (and human beings in general) into the two categories, based on a line from the Greek poet, Archilochus, saying: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
“There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.”
Reagan had a central vision and a rigid political philosophy, and was largely unconcerned with details — indeed, as William Leuchtenburg puts it in his new book, "The American President,"
“No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill-informed.”
The 40th president was the antithesis of a policy wonk, and often could not answer reporters basic questions about national security and other subjects of importance. For many, he was just plain dumb. Indeed, a decade before he entered the highest office in the land, President Richard Nixon and his then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, discussed Reagan — then Governor of California — on the phone, saying that he was “shallow” and of “limited mental capacity.” But the real jewel comes in their contemplating a possible Reagan presidency:
“Can you think though, Henry, can you think, though, that Reagan, with certain forces running in the direction, could be sitting right here?” asked the president, to which Kissinger simply replied: “Inconceivable.”
What Reagan lacked in brain power he made up with in grandfatherly charm and ideological persistence. Reagan put forth a vision that the government was not the solution, but the problem in need of a solution. He railed against the New Deal era, which had come about with the last genuinely transformative president before him, Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to FDR, the government had little place in making sure people were employed and treated and paid fairly as workers, as well as ensuring an economy and political system that was not entirely tilted in favor of the capitalist class.
This New Deal philosophy, which favored unions and economic regulation, came to an end under Reagan. (As I have previously written, the most notable Republican president during the New Deal era, Dwight Eisenhower, wouldn’t dare go after New Deal policies, which were tremendously popular.) The former B-movie actor took a stand against unions, slashed taxes on the wealthy, deregulated the financial sector, and so on. It was a pro-capital counterrevolution that ushered in what we now call the neoliberal era. After Reagan, the party of FDR shifted its philosophy to the right of Richard Nixon’s. Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over,” was a stark contrast to Nixon’s earlier claim that “we’re all Keynesians now.”
While President Obama is certainly historic in being the first African American president, he has not ushered in any kind of paradigm shift, as Roosevelt and Reagan did before him. Sadly, we are still living in a broadly neoliberal, pro-capital country and world, and Obama has governed only slightly to the left of Bill Clinton. And, while Hillary Clinton has attempted to promote herself as a pragmatic populist, one would have to be awfully uninformed to expect any kind of political transformation with her at the helm. Clinton is more of a poll-driven political realist than Obama, without much of a discernible ideology. Using Berlin’s terminology, she is the epitome of a fox, and would almost certainly govern to the right of our current president.
So it is that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who is a hedgehog like Reagan, is the only current presidential candidate who could potentially bring Reagan-style transformation if elected. Like Reagan, Sanders has a central vision, with policy ideas that wouldn’t stand a chance of passing in our current Congress. His goal is to bring forth a “political revolution,” just as Reagan did. When Reagan ran for president, he captured the vote of many former Democrats — namely, Reagan Democrats. Today, Sanders wants to recapture their vote. And, like Reagan, the idea of Sanders becoming president was “inconceivable” to the establishment not too long ago. For many, it still is.
The similarities don’t stop there. Reagan was one of the most personally liked presidents in recent history, and Sanders has the best favorability and trustworthy ratings of all the current presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican. He has a stubborn passion that Reagan once brought to the White House, though on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Of course, the fact that Sanders would overtake Reagan as the oldest president-elect in history is purely coincidental.
It should be recalled that, unlike FDR's presidency, the Reagan was largely a failure when it came to enacting actual policy. After slashing taxes in his first year, he would go on to raise taxes seven times later on in order to make up for lost revenue (although he refused to call them tax hikes, instead saying “revenue enhancements”). He promised to cut social spending and dismantle government agencies, yet ended up adding one of the biggest agency’s, the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also ran against abortion and advocated a constitutional amendment ending it, but never seriously attempted this once in office. The most successful aspect of Reagan’s presidency had less to do with policy, and more to do with shifting the debate and convincing American’s that the government was the problem. He forced Democrat’s to abandon the New Deal philosophy, and Bill Clinton led the way in reforming his party.
“The Presidency is not merely an administrative office,” said FDR in 1932, during his first presidential campaign. “That is the least of it. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All of our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
Seven years ago, many believed that Obama would be the latest transformative president to lead America through a conversion of thought. As George Packer wrote in The New Yorker:
“The new era that is about to begin under President Obama will be more about public good than about private goods. The meal will be smaller, and have less interesting flavors, but it will be shared more fairly. The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history. It has not yet finished astounding the world.”
Today, economic inequality has grown worse, political spending has skyrocketed, big banks are bigger than ever, and Obama is fighting hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which some have called “NAFTA on steroids.”
So much for that transformative change.
One could argue that, if Sanders was elected president, he would inevitably disappoint, just like Obama. But he is a fundamentally different kind of politician. He is personally more like Reagan than Obama. And the differences don’t end with personality; perhaps one of the biggest difference between Obama 2008 and Sanders 2016 is that Obama’s largest contributor was Goldman Sachs, while the average donation to the Sanders campaign is about $27. Sanders believes in moral leadership, which starts with refusing to play by the current set of rules, where special interests hold politicians hostage. If that is not a sign of a transformative leadership, I don’t know what is.