Last night, I had the privilege of dining with one of the country’s foremost political commentators. As the author of numerous articles and several books on President Obama, his knowledge of the man and the politician was illuminating in more ways than one. Not to mention the halibut, which was excellent.
More than anything else though – even the halibut – one point made last night has kept me thinking.
Over the course of the past few months, hundreds of news articles have been written about President Obama’s increasing interest in Ronald Reagan. Though he has not – to my knowledge – commented on this peculiar political bedfellowship since the early 2008 primaries, much time, print, and pixel has been dedicated to speculation on the nature of it.
Unsurprisingly, the topic came up in conversation last night. The guest of honor was nice enough to quell my own confusion over the connection; perhaps not so nicely, he replaced confusion with sheer depression.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was: Reagan shifted the political paradigm. Even as a Democrat, you couldn’t make a political argument without coming – to a certain extent – from the free-market perspective. Obama finds this notion attractive; in other words, he would like to be the “Reagan of the left,” and shift the paradigm to the left once more.
A compelling analysis, smartly put. The sad part is, where Reagan was successful, Obama has failed. Sadder still, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for improvement, because Obama no longer seems to be trying. What we all saw [read: me, my parents, and anyone willing to respond to my texts and emails] as a campaign designed to redefine our politics has quickly devolved into an administration of capitulation and compromise. Moreover, starting just days after his election, President Obama has consistently chosen appointees and staff who seem more comfortable arguing on Reagan’s terms than creating new terms altogether. The sum total: two years of governing that has largely reinforced the public’s sense of skepticism towards government and those working in it.
It’s not that I’m a purist or an absolutist; I recognize that in a democracy, especially one with over 300 million members, compromises must be made. For instance: though they didn’t contain every provision for which I might have advocated, I felt and still feel that the health insurance and financial regulatory reform laws created in 2010 will serve our country well. Rather, it’s the smaller stuff – the misguided initiative-taking or lack thereof – that really bothers me. It is on this level that, for two years, President Obama has shown he simply isn’t capable of redefining the style or substance of our politics the way Reagan was.
Gun ownership comes to mind as I write this. Since Reagan, Republican talking points on both have largely been the same. In 1975, then-Governor Reagan said:
Our nation was built and civilized by men and women who used guns in self-defense and in pursuit of peace. One wonders indeed, if the rising crime rate, isn’t due as much as anything to the criminal’s instinctive knowledge that the average victim no longer has means of self-protection.
Meanwhile, more than 30 years later, potential 2012 GOP Presidential nominee Sen. John Thune articulated the same logic:
I say to my colleague from New York that if someone who has a concealed carry permit … in the state of South Dakota goes to New York and is in Central Park — Central Park is a much safer place.
This has been their mantra for decades, but rather than finally sweep it away – with the ample evidence contradicting the argument that gun ownership somehow prevents crime – President Obama has remained curiously silent on gun control in its entirety. No speeches, proposals, meetings, or even “unconfirmed reports.” So much for shifting the political playing field to the left.
Gun ownership is far from the only political issue on which President Obama has conceded the liberal argument, but at 637 words, to expound on a few more would likely be overkill. Federal worker pay, judicial appointments, and economic policy all come to mind almost immediately, though.
In summary, my commentator-cum-dining companion seems right about the intentions of President Obama in aspiring to be a kind of liberal Ronald Reagan. Where said commentator stopped, and where I start off, is whether one might ever realistically hope that Obama can achieve the same kind of transformative presidency Reaganites can – for better or worse – claim. It is with sadness that I thought it last night and sadness that I write it now: if Democrats are seeking the mantle of “transformative politics,” as Roosevelt did in 1932 and as Kennedy did in 1960, I think they should look past Barack Obama.