The inclination with any new president is to define him by those who came before. So we graft Barack Obama's head atop the black-and-white, cigarette-puffing image of Franklin Roosevelt (as Time did), or we dress him up as George Washington (as the New Yorker did), or we expound on how similar he is to that other tall, skinny, relatively inexperienced Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln. Some even have compared the coming pitter-patter of Sasha and Malia with our sepia-toned memories of John-John and Caroline.
But much less has been said about another president Obama praised forcefully during the campaign. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told Nevada's Reno Gazette-Journal last January. Reagan, he explained, "tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
Was Obama pandering for votes in the Mountain West, or was he perhaps on some kind of a Rocky Mountain high? Could this darling of the left-leaning "netroots" who became a community organizer in Chicago in response to Reaganomics, and then a solidly liberal U.S. senator, really see the patron saint of the conservative movement and "trickle-down economics" as a potential role model?
Indeed, at least in domestic policy, Obama clearly intends to be the anti-Reagan. The president has vowed to reverse 1980s-era tax policies that placed a greater burden on the middle class even as rates for the wealthiest were slashed. Reagan was so eager to undo Jimmy Carter's forward-looking policies that he not only deeply cut funding for alternative energy research, he removed the solar panels from the White House roof. Obama, in contrast, has pledged that "science matters again" in a war on climate change and diminishing fossil-fuel supplies.
And yet, in some ways, today's American political landscape of rising unemployment and peril in the Middle East appears surprisingly similar to the way things must have looked to Reagan as he peered out from the west front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 1981. Our national psyche fears a greatly diminished standing for the United States in the world -- just as we did after Vietnam and stagflation. The debt-increasing, anti-regulatory actions of the Reagan years may have helped to bring on the current mess, but in the route that the Great Communicator took to sell his ideas, Obama could find a surprising road map to a very different kind of transformative presidency. For example:
Start with a very narrow focus. Reagan made his name in the 1950s and 1960s as a fiery Cold Warrior, yet U.S.-Soviet relations simmered mostly on the back burner during his first year in office. His team lived the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," before Bill Clinton's aides actually uttered it. Warned that with interest rates over 21% the nation was facing "an economic Dunkirk," Reagan stayed singularly on that message until his sweeping tax changes became law in August 1981. For Obama, a similar single-minded focus on his economic stimulus plan could reap the same kind of political benefits -- but this time for a policy that actually helps the middle class.
Keep it optimistic at all times. As with FDR before him, Reagan arrived in Washington with an intuitive understanding that how Americans feel in their gut about the economy is more important than the cold numbers. "We're in control here," Reagan said in a televised speech on Feb. 18, 1981. "There's nothing wrong with America that together we can't fix." The public, weary of Carter's much-discussed "malaise," responded -- with a remarkable 77% in a poll that spring saying Reagan was "inspiring confidence in the White House." Today, the best thing that Obama can do to sell his massive economic stimulus plan that could approach a cost of $850 billion or more is to exude an aura of certainty that it will work.
Speak consistently but be flexible on the details. People tend to remember Reagan today more for his bold, conservative public statements and symbolism than for the pragmatic policies he pushed through. Today, you rarely hear that, as president, he agreed to a series of tax hikes from 1982 through 1987, named two centrists to the Supreme Court and achieved the only major bipartisan agreement to shore up Social Security. Yet this pragmatic side of Reagan offers a lesson that may serve Obama's promise of bipartisanship better than bold-looking but meaningless gestures -- such as slotting Pastor Rick Warren for his inauguration.
Talk to your enemies, but only when the time is right. The legendary Reagan optimism didn't stop at fiscal policy; he truly believed he could sell his ideas to anyone, even the leaders of an "evil empire." In April 1981, just a week after he was released from the hospital after an attempted assassination, Reagan wrote to then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev seeking common ground. It took most of his presidency -- and a Soviet succession crisis -- before his vision of nuclear disarmament talks could become a reality with Mikhail Gorbachev, but it finally happened. In looking out at hostile regimes from Tehran to Caracas, Obama would do well to remember this side of the Gipper that the conservative Reagan myth machine prefers to ignore in favor of his "tear down this wall" bravado.
During his eight years in office, the Great Communicator often used his remarkable powers of persuasion to advance a policy agenda that was not helpful to the generation that came after him. America's massive debt to China and other nations, rampant consumerism, an unregulated Wall Street and willful ignorance about issues from climate change to energy alternatives all have roots that were planted during Reagan's 1980s.
But the remarkable irony is this: For Obama to lead America out of this mess that was a quarter of a century in the making, and undo the Reagan myth in the process, he will need to harness the confidence, the focus, the pragmatism and the optimism of the very president whose myth he will be working to undo.
Will Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, is the author of the forthcoming "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Distorts Our Politics and Haunts Our Future."