The shock waves from liberal and moderate Democrats not to mention then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's two rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were palpable in January, 2008. Obama had committed political heresy when he heaped mild praise on former President Ronald Reagan in an interview with the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. Obama compounded the seeming heresy by using Reagan to take a dig at another Democrat, Bill Clinton. He strongly implied that Reagan was far more impactful on the country than Clinton. Even that didn't end Obama's Reagan praise fest. He also fulsomely credited Reagan with transforming the GOP into a "party of ideas."
Two years later, Obama piled even more praise on Reagan as a consummate leader, communicator, and inspirer. The near reverential homage presidential candidate and later president 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 the Reagan deification 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's 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, and the death penalty, on 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 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 unto the national debt, and expanded government programs. He back-pedaled in fighting to roll back abortion rights, on the IRS exemption to segregated Bob Jones University, dismantling welfare, and gutting education programs.
His 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, and sustained legal challenge to affirmative action programs, or whittle away regulations mandating diversity in government hiring, promotions, and contracting programs that conservatives demanded. The Reagan administration actually filed more civil rights suits in housing, education and voter discrimination cases than during President Jimmy Carter's first term.
Then there was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Despite massive pressure from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, and King critics, and Reagan's deep personal misgivings about the King bill and King, he signed the bill a month later. This made him the first and likely the last American history to sign a bill commemorating an African-American with a national holiday. In 1982, despite massive GOP pressure to modify or veto Congress's approval of a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, Reagan quickly signed the bill.
Reagan adhered and Obama adheres close to the tight dictate of American presidential politics. That is liberal and moderate Democrats during early stages of their presidential campaigns run 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 plant in the center to effectively govern. Obama is no different. Republicans do just the opposite. They run to the right and slide quickly to the center as they get the victory scent, and then plant there to effectively 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, ideological neutral presidency. This was the price of White House governance for Reagan a quarter century ago. It's the same for Obama today.
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