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If Washington Irving’s famous tale of Rip Van Winkle were updated for our time, it might feature a stately pundit like David Broder awakening from his 30-year slumber Sunday astonished to see the widespread acclaim for Ronald Reagan on his 100th birthday. Nothing seemed more implausible in 1980 than the idea that this former B-movie actor of arguably extreme and simplistic views would not only be a successful president, but also would enjoy growing respect even among his ideological opponents. How did this happen, and what does it mean?
Partly this represents the natural cycle of presidential reputations. The nostalgic goodwill of Americans leads us to forget the things we disliked about our presidents when they were in front of us, while revisionist historians discover unseen aspects of past presidents that reveal new dimensions. Thus Harry Truman, deeply unpopular when he left office, and Dwight Eisenhower, perceived as plodding and unimaginative during the 1950s, are highly esteemed today. Even disgraced or “failed” presidents, such as Ulysses Grant and Jimmy Carter, have fared better with additional historical perspective. In Reagan’s case, the end of the Cold War and the revelation of his vast original writings, long assumed to have all been ghostwritten for him, showed there was more to him than met the eye.
But the intensity of the Reagan phenomenon goes beyond most other presidents, such that he now ranks alongside John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Lincoln for evoking the sentiments of a large number of Americans. This suggests a greater depth to the Reagan story beyond his winning manner and distinctive achievements. It is telling that President Obama, who came to office hoping to emulate the substance of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the style and idealism of Kennedy’s New Frontier, is now being measured most often to the Reagan standard, even though Obama, by his own admission, represents a very different philosophy of government. Obama’s speech in Tucson, and his recent State of the Union speech, were both calibrated according to how “Reaganesque” they were, even though Obama’s political position more closely resembles Bill Clinton’s after the 1994 election than Reagan’s at any point in the 1980s.
Two particular Reagan achievements have receded in our memory but have become the model for all of his successors. First, at the time Reagan became president in 1981, the institution was in deep trouble. The previous four presidents had all been judged failures, and the theme became widespread that no one could be a successful president in modern times. For example, political scientist Theodore Lowi wrote: “The presidency has become an impossible job, because the presidency has become too big, even for the likes of FDR.” The air was thick with reform proposals, from a single six-year term to parliamentary-style cabinet government.
The highest measure of Reagan’s achievement is that after his eight years, the Iran-contra disaster notwithstanding, all talk of the presidency as an inadequate institution had vanished into the mists, and has not returned. The National Journal polled presidential scholars in 1985, finding that a large majority thought Reagan had succeeded in “reviving trust and confidence” in an institution “that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable.” Americans may have been unhappy with Reagan’s successors, but not because the presidency itself is in trouble.
The pessimism about the presidency was matched at the time by pessimism about the nation’s future. The nation’s outlook was bleak on the cusp of the 1980s; Carter had proclaimed our “crisis of confidence” in his infamous 1979 speech, but Richard Nixon had said similar things a decade before. Not only did polls find a huge majority of Americans believing the nation was on the “wrong track,” but also, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans thought the future would be less bright than our past. Reagan’s second great achievement was reversing this.
It is commonplace to ascribe Reagan’s success to his optimism and his romantic view of America as a “city on a hill,” but it is too simple to mark this out as mere presidential cheerleading. Beyond Reagan’s soaring patriotic rhetoric was a substantive view of what constituted the heart of “American exceptionalism”-the idea that the United States is different from other nations, perhaps an expression of God’s providence, and “the last best hope on earth,” as Lincoln put it. Reagan’s view was that the dynamism of American life depended on an equilibrium between government power and individual liberty; when high taxes or excessive regulation disrupts this balance, America stagnates. Reagan’s grand strategy, not always perfectly or completely executed, aimed at restoring the balance. Reagan was an unconventional conservative in that his criticisms of “big government” were always accompanied by his affirmation of the greatness of the American people and the possibility of progress. Too often conservatives present only the first half of the Reagan message, and come off as antigovernment zealots rather than reformers.
Reagan’s successors followed him in banishing pessimism from the presidential podium, and all-including Obama-have embraced some version of American exceptionalism. Obama stumbled on this subject once, in his attempt at a diplomatic answer when asked in Europe about the idea. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said in France, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But Obama has also repeatedly said that “in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
In the end, style and rhetoric get a president only a little way down the field. The complete lesson of Reagan is one of policy substance matching rhetorical style. That is a lesson both for Obama and Reagan’s would-be heirs on the right.
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.
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