11.04.08

Obama Is the New Reagan

A former Reagan speechwriter says Obama is like The Great Communicator in his style, oratory, and temperament.

Now Barack Obama has been elected, he can begin to work as the transformative president he said he wanted to be. When he declared that ambition on the primary trail, he found himself vilified by Hillary Clinton for comparing himself to Ronald Reagan.

But that comparison is apt, as is becoming evident by the hour. The inspiring, elevated, ambitious victory speech he gave in Chicago last night confirmed that he has taken on the mantle that Ronald Reagan laid down after two terms. Obama hopes to change the country for the better, as Reagan did, and already he seems heading in the right direction.

Effective government is what we need. Call it New Deal II. And Roosevelt’s oratory, his Fireside Chats, helped to inspire people to support his programs. Roosevelt, Reagan...Obama.

During the primaries, Obama said Reagan had set politics on a new trajectory, and that Bill Clinton, for example, had not. He was right, but was severely criticized by Democrats for saying something positive about Reagan.

In fact the two men have a great deal in common. Temperament, to be sure. And like Reagan, Obama will be a transformative president. And like Reagan, Obama is a Great Communicator, his oratory energizing people for change.

The first time most people became aware of Obama was when he made that great speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. We knew then we would hear from him again. He might prove to be the next great orator in American politics after Ronald Reagan. In a parallel way, most Americans became aware of Reagan when he made what came to be known as The Speech in 1964, supporting Barry Goldwater.

Effective government is what we need. Call it New Deal II. And Roosevelt’s oratory, his Fireside Chats, helped to inspire people to support his programs. Roosevelt, Reagan...Obama.

As it happens, early in 1968 I found myself in Sacramento working as a speechwriter for Reagan. William F. Buckley had been visiting Reagan at his place in Pacific Palisades, and it became evident that Reagan was thinking of running for the Republican nomination.

In 1962, following his narrow 1960 loss to Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon had run for governor of California, losing to Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown. Nixon gave his angry “last press conference.” In 1966, Reagan had defeated Brown by a million votes. Buckley persuaded Reagan that he needed me for a speechwriter, even though I had never written a political speech.

I quickly educated myself in what a political speech must do. It’s not primarily about information but about communion—with the target audience. But Reagan didn’t need a speechwriter. He was a good one himself. He wanted themes, paragraphs, memorable sentences. I did, however, help him a great deal on a speech about education.

In person, Reagan was a great deal like Obama, in his self-confidence and his equanimity under pressure. One morning, a member of staff asked the governor whether had read that day’s column by Herb Caen, a hostile San Francisco journalist. “Yes,” Reagan replied. “What’s the matter with that guy?” (Nixon, for whom I soon became a speechwriter, probably would have said, “We’ll get him. Put him on the list.”)

Reagan’s sense of humor disarmed even people who disagreed with him. At a press conference he was asked by a reporter, “Governor, have you seen all those anti-war pickets marching around the capitol?” Reagan asked, “Do you mean the ones carrying signs that say “Make love not war?” “Yes, governor.” Reagan: “Well, since you ask me, I don’t think they could do much of either.”

But he could also be steely, as in his confrontation with the air traffic controllers who were on strike, or in hitting Lybia’s Qaddaffi hard in the Gulf of Sidra affair. That was foreshadowed at a press conference. “Governor, the Black Panthers in Oakland are threatening a blood bath.” Reagan: “If they want a blood bath they can have a blood bath.”

Reagan’s “What’s the matter with that guy” came to my mind when Reagan destroyed Carter in a 1980 debate with “There you go again.” And in 1984 when he dismissed his age with a joke in a debate with Mondale: “I’m not going to hold my opponent’s age and inexperience against him.”

Reagan’s self-confidence enabled him to negotiate successfully with Gorbachev, even earning the Russian leader’s respect. The Soviet Union was crumbling economically, but Reagan gave it a push with the Star Wars missile defense shield (SDI), which the Soviets couldn’t afford even to test. Margaret Thatcher did exaggerate a bit, but she was essentially right when she said that “Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot.” In foreign policy Reagan set the country, and the world on a new trajectory by pushing the Soviets on the path to demise.

Domestically, he understood that marginal tax rates were too high. And as president he lowered marginal tax rates and stimulated the economy. But that didn’t mean that taxes should be lowered under any conditions. And Reagan understood that many federal programs were counter-productive. The Aid the Families With Dependent Children program actually encouraged the man to leave the household.

Today, our problems are not those Reagan faced, and today’s Republican party is not the party of 1980. It was irrelevant for John McCain to claim he had been a “foot soldier in the Reagan army.” The problems of the Republican party today demand entirely new thinking about what that party must be if it is to govern again. Symbolic of its problems is the fact that not since the 1920s has the theory of evolution been controversial in politics. The Republican party cannot be a tool of the evangelical movement, on evolution, stem cells and a host of other issues.

Obama arrives at a pivotal time for America. He faces problems at home and abroad that only someone who can carry the nation with him would be capable of solving.

Obama takes over from Bush, who has combined Lyndon Johnson with Herbert Hoover, two wars Bush couldn’t end and a recession reeling toward a global Depression. Iraq has cost a trillion dollars so far, and now ten billion a month, plus carnage, with a favorable strategic result unlikely. Almost certainly what will emerge is a Shiite Iraq allied with Iran.

Obama will have to look back to the transformative New Deal, which created millions of jobs building infrastructure—bridges, TVA, roads, tunnels—infrastructure now crumbling and often dangerous. Investment there will create jobs, as will the building of alternative sources of energy.

President Clinton once said, “The age of big government is over.” But not quite. Effective government is what we need. Call it New Deal II. And Roosevelt’s oratory, his Fireside Chats, helped to inspire people to support his programs. Roosevelt, Reagan...Obama.

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