One of the recurring debates about the Obama presidency has been which past president he is most like. Possible analogies have ranged from Lincoln, FDR, and JFK (all of which the White House has encouraged), to LBJ, Nixon, and Carter (all of which the White House has resisted). Part of the appeal of analogies is that in just one word they can evoke such potent emotions and embody much of the argument, both as warnings from the past as well as promises for what might come. Every president would love to be “another Lincoln”; no president wants to be “another Carter.”
So it is understandable that once the dreaded “Carter” analogies started popping up with some consistency—and not just from Republicans but from liberal journalists and pundits as well—the White House wanted to push back. And how better to defeat Carter than with Reagan? As Dan Balz reports in yesterday’s Washington Post, the White House political team hopes to contend instead that Obama’s first term is actually analogous to President Reagan’s first term.
As politics goes, this is a clever try, if one can get past the irony of an administration simultaneously trying to dismantle the Reagan legacy while embracing the Reagan image. But as a matter of history, it is, well, dubious. However appealing it might be as rhetoric, the record tells a different story.
Balz himself points out some of the differences between Reagan’s first term and Obama’s first term. Such as that, while both presidents faced high unemployment and economic stagnation heading into their midterm elections (in 1982 and 2010 respectively), Reagan’s policy centerpiece was a robust package of tax cuts, whereas Obama’s two measures of choice have been the massive spending increases of the stimulus package and the healthcare overhaul. Or that by 1983, the economy enjoyed a robust recovery, in both gross domestic product growth (hitting 7.2 percent by 1984, America’s highest annual growth rate of the last 50 years)and in household disposable income (more than 6 percent in 1984), whereas current Congressional Budget Office forecasts tell a much less promising story for 2011–2012.
Yet there are several other differences that Balz doesn’t mention. Among them:
• Inflation. The economic recession that Reagan inherited was bedeviled not only by low growth and high unemployment (as with today), but also by an inflation rate of 11.8 percent when Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981. In contrast, Obama faced an inflation rate of 0 percent at his inauguration (though fears of deflation were in the air). To tackle this crippling inflation, Reagan supported Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker in hiking the federal funds rate to 20 percent, amid widespread criticism and resistance, especially from farmers and industry. This politically courageous monetary policy was as important as the tax cuts in eventually restoring growth.
• Congress. While Obama has enjoyed the luxury of his party’s dominance in both houses of Congress, Reagan faced a harder political landscape in his first two years. The Democrats controlled the House by 244–191, and in the Senate 53 Republicans constituted a slim GOP majority.
• National Security. Reagan believed that the Soviet threat needed to be countered more aggressively and made doing so a centerpiece of his first term. This saw international tensions increase—and fears of nuclear war further heightened the anxiety of an American public already suffering from the recession. While Obama also faces manifest international challenges, in public messaging his administration has devoted comparatively little attention to security issues such as the terrorist threat and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If anything, they have sought to focus public attention and political capital almost exclusively on the domestic agenda.
• Leadership. Perhaps the most important dissimilarity is also the least tangible: an intuitive feel for the public mood and connection with the American people. Even some of Obama’s most ardent supporters worry that he has either lost this connection or possibly never had it. Reagan always had it, which accounted for much of his enduring appeal even in politically trying times.
The art of the presidency involves an intuitive balance between relating with the American people where they are, while also leading them where the nation needs to go. This was Reagan’s accomplishment in a nutshell. In contrast, Obama seems to have difficulty relating to the American people where they are, while on domestic policy he is trying to lead them where many don’t want to go.
Hence some of the recurring Carter comparisons. As John Judis has lamented, both Carter and Obama “failed to connect with large parts of the electorate” and struggled with “an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public.” Of course, while this White House understandably wants to avoid the Carter analogy, things could be worse—such as the Michael Dukakis comparison.
Analogies aside, the Obama administration will ultimately be judged not by comparisons to past presidents, but in the near term by the American electorate, and in the long term by history itself. In this sense, one sign will be whether presidents in future decades want to be called “another Obama,” or not.