WASHINGTON - Barack Obama caused quite a stir among Democrats three years ago, when he heaped mild praise on former Republican President Ronald Reagan during an interview with the editorial board of a newspaper. He compounded the seeming heresy by using Reagan to take a dig at another Democrat, Bill Clinton, implying that Reagan was far more impactful on the country than Clinton. Even that didn’t end Obama’s Reagan praise-fest. He also credited Reagan with transforming the GOP into a “party of ideas.”
The near reverential homage Obama continually pays to Reagan stands in gaping contrast to his slam of Reagan a decade and a half earlier in his 1995 autobiography “Dreams From My Father.” He branded those in Reagan’s administration “minions” that carried out his “dirty deeds.”
There is no contradiction, historical revisionism, or superficial revel in Obama’s Reagan reversal. Obama has followed much of the Reagan template on how to govern. Reagan conciliated moderate Democrats when he needed to. Obama has done the same with GOP conservatives. Obama gave a big hint of that during the campaign. He tweaked his liberal views on the issues of expansion of stem-cell research, immigration, faith-based social services, expanded government wiretapping, building more nuclear power plants, global warming, fair trade, the death penalty, health care and taxes. Once elected, he vigorously backed the Wall Street bailout and compromised on the initial tough regulatory checks on the financial industry that he had initially proposed. He dropped his early campaign promise of a speedy troop withdrawal from Iraq and said that there would be a slow, phased end to America’s military presence in the country. He, of course, agreed to the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy. With the GOP in tight control of the House, compromise and conciliation will even be more the watchwords in Obama’s political lexicon.
Reagan had to embed those same words – compromise and conciliation -- during his two White House terms when dealing with Democrats who controlled Congress. He granted amnesty to undocumented workers, raised taxes across the board, piled tens of billions onto the national debt, and expanded government programs. Acting contrary to the GOP agenda, he upheld abortion rights, denied an IRS exemption to a segregated university, and maintained welfare and education programs, instead of dismantling them.
Reagan’s Justice Department filed dozens of lawsuits to overturn affirmative action plans negotiated with police and fire departments. Some of the court challenges succeeded; some didn't. But the Reagan administration never mounted a vigorous, sustained legal challenge to affirmative action programs. Instead, he upheld regulations mandating diversity in government hiring, promotions, and contracting programs. The Reagan administration actually filed more civil rights suits in housing, education and voter discrimination cases than during former President Jimmy Carter's first term.
Reagan proved himself to be a champion of civil rights through two decisive presidential acts: signing into law a bill that created the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and approving a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.
It is part of the game of American presidential politics that liberal and moderate Democrats, during the early stages of their presidential campaigns, make lots of base-appealing defiant promises of political change and overhaul, but move quickly to the center as they sniff the possibility of victory, and then govern from the center. Obama is no different. Republicans do just the same. They run to the right and then slide quickly to the center to govern. Reagan was no different.
In June 2009, Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act. Former first lady Nancy Reagan leaned over his right shoulder and beamed approvingly. He again praised her husband for doing as much as any other president to bring a spirit of hope to the country that transcended politics.
He did not say that to flatter the person closest to Reagan, his wife. It was simply Obama’s frank recognition that Reagan did what he and other successful presidents routinely have done and must do, and that is run a cautious, conciliatory, and above all, ideologically neutral presidency. This was the price of White House governance for Reagan a quarter century ago. It’s the same for Obama today.