Barack Obama and the Path of Reagan

Against the backdrop of something approaching national panic and with his looming push for a massive infusion of public money into the economy, Barack Obama’s inauguration next week is drawing understandable comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s at the height of the Depression.

But from a political standpoint, a more meaningful parallel can be drawn between the president-elect and Ronald Reagan as he prepared to assume the presidency 28 years ago. Although they are ideological opposites, there are meaningful similarities between the appeal both men demonstrated as candidates and the circumstances under which they won election.

Taken together, this suggests that Mr. Obama stands to enjoy unusual clout in the early days of his administration, portending well for his prospects of pushing an agenda through Congress. But, if the Reagan example is a guide, the glow will be short-lived if, as expected, the economy worsens significantly before it improves.

First, consider how Reagan and Mr. Obama were elected. Rallying their parties’ long-suffering bases in the primaries and winning over general-election voters with their infectious and inspiring personalities, both men positioned themselves in opposition to the dominant governing philosophy of the previous generation just as it was falling into disfavor.

In 1980, double-digit inflation, unemployment, and interest rates conspired to undermine the New Deal–Great Society consensus that had defined American politics for decades. Just 16 years earlier, voters had overwhelmingly rejected Barry Goldwater’s libertarian campaign against big government. But as job losses mounted and prices soared, an emerging army of suburban voters found themselves nodding in agreement with Reagan’s proclamation that "government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

Today, it is the Reagan consensus—which led even a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to decree that "the era of big government is over"—that has run its course, its deregulatory excesses implicated in everything from the collapse of the housing market to the tragically incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina. With the structural integrity of the economy itself seemingly at stake, far fewer Americans now see Uncle Sam as the enemy.

As with Reagan, who was pegged by his opponents as a trigger-happy maniac in ’80, Mr. Obama’s main campaign obstacle was the fear that he was too radical, a man who "pals around with terrorists." And just like Reagan, he overcame the charge with ease, enjoying a sweeping November victory that also produced heavy gains for his party in Congress.

It was Reagan’s sunny disposition, coupled with the country’s depressed morale and yearning for dramatic change, that provided him with unusual leeway to pursue his agenda. In January 1981, he took office talking of delivering a "jolt" to the anemic economy and offering up a massive tax-cut package that represented nothing short of a thorough repudiation of the New Deal–Great Society legacy. Democrats tried to muster opposition, but unity was a problem: Reagan’s popularity and the momentum of the ’80 election scared dozens of Democrats into backing the president’s program, and his signature tax cuts were quickly enacted. It was, in the words of The Washington Post, "a stunning start."

Next week, we may hear Mr. Obama talk of delivering his own jolt to the economy, but his approach will be far different—an enormous stimulus package (it could run as high as $1 trillion) that would make the government the central player in any economic recovery. There are some rumblings of dissent from within his own party (some Democrats want to spend more, or don’t care much for the tax relief Mr. Obama is likely to propose) and some Republicans—most notably the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell—seem to be laying the groundwork to fight the stimulus plan as an exercise in irresponsible and wasteful spending.

But all of these protests figure to be as futile as those that were heard in January ’81. Like Reagan, Mr. Obama’s personality and the country’s desperation have given the incoming president room to maneuver—a recent poll gave Mr. Obama a 70 percent approval rating so far.

The Reagan example comes with a cautionary note, though. After his tax cuts were enacted, there was no improvement in the economy. In fact, the country plunged into a recession in 1981 and 1982. The lack of tangible improvement in their lives soured Americans on their president, and by September ’82, Reagan’s recorded a negative approval rating—50 percent disapproved, while 46 percent approved—for the first time. The midterm elections of ’82 were a blood bath for his party, which lost 26 seats in the House. As Reagan reached the halfway point of his first term, the prospect of defeat in 1984 was all too real.

Of course, the economy promptly went into recovery, and in the ’84 campaign Americans fell in love with Reagan all over again. His revolution, at least for the time, was validated, but it’s easy to forget how closely he flirted with failure.  

Assuming they get their way on a stimulus plan, Barack Obama and his supporters will be working against the clock, too. Barack Obama and the Path of Reagan