In the run up to the Nevada caucuses, Barack Obama offered disaffected progressives unsure of where to turn in the Democratic primary yet another reason to distrust him. Speaking to the editorial board of the Reno Gazette, the Illinois senator compared himself to Ronald Reagan, explaining that he thought “Reagan changed the trajectory of America… He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
Predictably, these comments caused a firestorm. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton blasted Obama for praising a figure that many Democratic activists revile even more than they do the current president. The controversy ended up looking like a typical back-and-forth between campaigns. At worse, say Obama supporters, the senator is guilty of pandering to obtain a newspaper endorsement — hardly the most unusual of crimes in the heat of an electoral season.
Unfortunately, Obama’s comments cannot be so easily dismissed. Given all the instances in which Obama has attacked his rivals from the right over the past year, his statement is indicative of the limitations of his emphasis on unity. The uncomfortable scene that unfolded during CNN’s Election Night coverage on Jan. 19 provided a clue to the subtext of Obama’s remarks. After Al Gore’s former campaign manager Donna Brazile warned Obama that his words might not play well to the party’s base, none other than Bill Bennett, Reagan’s controversial secretary of education, rushed to Obama’s rescue.
Liberal defenders of Obama’s comments argue that the candidate was only admiring the Gipper’s communication skills; after all, it can hardly be denied that the former president moved the country to embrace his conservative ideology. But Obama unmistakably went further than that.
By explaining that Reagan understood “we want clarity, we want optimism,” Obama praised Reagan’s ability to bridge the country’s divides and appeal to the vision of the shining city upon a hill. He did not simply characterize Reagan’s optimism as an effective communicative technique but also as the path “the country was ready for” at the time.
Given that Reagan’s policies did very little to unite anyone and only broadened the country’s racial and class divisions, to suggest that Reaganism was what the country needed in 1980 is giving political symbols and process a troubling priority over substance. By now, every voter has realized that the buzzwords “hope” and “change” are at the forefront of Obama’s message, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the candidate conceives of those trademarks as empty vessels that are indifferent to anything substantive.
The call for change is vague enough that anyone can join the Obama Revolution. As long as the country’s thirst for “clarity and optimism” is satisfied, the content of change and of the audacious hope are secondary issues to be decided only after President Obama is inaugurated in Jan. 2009.
More problematically, Obama’s comments went beyond praising the Gipper’s style and managed to articulate common ground with the former president on the level of substance. Obama explained that Americans in 1980 were reacting to “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s” during which “government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability.” He also added that the country was clamoring for “a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
Such language was typical of Reagan’s blasting of the liberalism of the 1970s; determined to move away from large-scale government programs, Reagan managed to convince the country that social protections and workers’ rights diminished economic opportunities. A crucial part of the conservative argument was that the preceding decades’ reliance on government was damaging America’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Since 1980, many in the Democratic Party have capitulated to such conservative ideology, embarked on third-way politics and sought to capture the elusive center; Bill Clinton, who scaled back many government programs, was hardly a progressive icon. By talking about “excesses” and “missing entrepreneurship,” Obama perpetuated his party’s modern orientation and recycled Reagan’s criticism of 1970s liberalism.
With this move, the generational divide invited itself into the campaign in a way Obama might not have wished. The Illinois senator likes to remind audiences that he would be the first post-baby boom president and invites voters to move beyond the divisions of past culture wars.
But this controversy served as a reminder that Obama came of age at the start of the Reagan era; he is part of the generation that is the most reliably conservative in national elections, the generation whose political consciousness was fashioned by Reagan’s near-constant assault on the legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Two weeks from the Connecticut primary, Obama’s latest comments should make us wonder whether he, too, was put on a “fundamentally different path” by the Gipper.
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays.