Amid tributes, Obama seeks Reagan magic

2011-02-04 16:01

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Washington - As the United States prepares to mark 100 years since the birth of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, embattled President Barack Obama is aiming to tap into his late predecessor's political magic.

Shortly after what Obama has described as his November elections "shellacking", the White House trumpeted that he was reading a biography of Reagan, who held the White House from 1981 to 1989 and died in 2004.

Like Reagan, Obama swept into office on a euphoric political wave, vowing to restore US optimism and revive a sputtering economy - then suffered a mid-term elections rout two years later fuelled by high joblessness.

But Reagan roared back to a landslide re-election romp in 1984 thanks to an economic surge that led voters to agree with him that they were better off than they had been four years earlier and that it was "morning in America".

The actor-turned-political-prophet's supporters credit him with bringing down the Soviet Union, reining in an out-of-control US government, and rekindling Americans' enterprise and sense of global purpose.

His critics portray him as an out-of-touch bumbler whose policies widened the gap between America's richest and its shrinking middle class, and dug the nation deep into debt while embracing repressive dictators and unsavoury rebels in his consuming anti-Communist quest.

Great Communicator

Rather than re-fight battles over Reagan's record, Obama has claimed kinship to his famously sunny view of the United States, even as some observers see the current president emulating the "Great Communicator" in his appeals to voters.

"No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan - and I certainly had my share - there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America," Obama said in a late January column in the USA Today newspaper.

"It was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything," the president said in a brief essay about Reagan ahead of the anniversary of his birth on February 6 1911.

Obama has also used Reagan as a shield for his own policies - defending a landmark arms control treaty with Moscow last year with the Republican leader's emphasis that such accords embody a "trust but verify" philosophy.

And the White House website often quotes Reagan's former solicitor general, Charles Fried, who said that "the healthcare law's enemies have no ally in the Constitution" - a direct rebuttal to Republican attacks.

Echoes of Reagan

There were also echoes of Reagan in Obama's recent State of the Union speech, when he called for a five-year spending freeze even as he pushed for new spending on infrastructure and education, as well as a tax-code overhaul.

"I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years - without adding to our deficit," he said.

The appeal recalled Reagan's work with Democrats to reform the US tax code in 1986 - a stark contrast to Obama's description, in his 1995 autobiography Dreams of My Father, of his youthful distaste for Reagan, his "minions" and their "dirty deeds".

"Obama respects Reagan's optimism and capacity to engage big issues but he shares little in the way of public philosophy or issue positions," according to Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And Obama has drawn fire from his allies on the Left for praising Reagan, notably heated attacks from Bill and Hillary Clinton in early 2008 when he said Reagan "changed the trajectory of America" in a way Clinton "did not".

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, a standard-bearer for the American Left, acknowledged to AFP this week that Reagan "was a very warm individual" who "connected with the American people".

"But I think many of the policies that he developed did a great deal of disservice to the middle class and working families of this country. And I think we can learn from those serious policy errors and hopefully not continue," said Sanders.

Asked what Obama could take from the Reagan model, Sanders replied: "I haven't the slightest idea."

Read more on:    ronald reagan  |  barack obama  |  us

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