Presidents Compared: Reagan and Obama
A Chicago tribune article published in the year 2011 states that Obama and Reagan are differently similar. Both these Presidents, though Reagan took office nearly three decades before Obama, have many remarkable similarities. They both came in when the country faced a severe economic crisis, and they both inherited wars- Obama the war on terror; Reagan the cold war & Iranian hostage crisis. They both were expected to do miracles both in the economic and war front, and when they didn’t meet expectations, many political observers were disappointed.
Though both of them were reelected for their second terms, they did face a period in the middle of their terms, when their popularity polls took a serious dip. Both handled the foreign affairs and economic reforms in different style, with reasonable success. While Reagan is to date, the oldest president to have been elected for the White House, Obama is one of the youngest elected (fifth in the list). Both these presidents came into office with a clear plan for economic revival but operated in different styles. By investigating a few of the patterns of similarities and differences in the presidential tenures of Reagan and Obama, this essay will explore how Obama’s Government is different from Reagan’s yet in some ways similar.
Road to presidency
Ronald Reagan and Barak Obama had one thing common in their pursuit of public office – both of them were deemed to be unfit for the post of the president by many detractors. Whilst Reagan was considered an ignorant actor and a conservative with outdated principles, Obama faced his share of criticisms with his political opponents calling him an alleged socialist and accused foreigner. Other than this, they both had few, if any, similarities in the way they travelled to the top post.
Unlike Obama, who was hardly known before his senate campaign, Reagan came to office after almost four decades of political career, and an equally notorious entertainment career. After three decades of career in the entertainment industry that spanned across various media like radio, TV and cinema, Reagan kick started his political career in 1945. He campaigned for many political candidates like Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and also supported the unsuccessful candidature of Helen Gahagan Douglas, a democratic candidate.
In 1964, he delivered a speech supporting the Presidential contender Barry Goldwater, and this speech turned out to be a milestone in his political career. Though the speech could not prevent the inevitable defeat of Goldwater, it did launch Reagan’s political career. He served as the governor of California between the years 1967-1975, and many of the decisions he took as the Californian Governor foreshadowed his Presidential policies.
While Reagan was the oldest President to assume office at the age of 69, Obama took office at an age of 47. His political career was hardly a decade old, compared to the massive 40 odd years of Reagan, when he took the oath. He won the election for the Illinois State senate in the year 1996 and the election for the US senate in the year 2005. He announced his candidature for Presidency in 2007, and had a duel for Democratic presidential candidature with Hilary Clinton. After 3 presidential debates with the Republican candidate John McCain and a vigorous campaign, Barack Obama became the first African American president of the USA in the year 2009.
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy is summarized through the phrase ‘peace through strength’. He practiced this mantra by increasing military expenditure, and though he indulged in diplomacy from time to time, his policies could hardly be called non-interventionist. He inherited the cold war from his predecessors, and he called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and believed it had to be stopped. He invaded Grenada, to protect the American medical students studying in the country and to oust the communist government ruling there. He also supported the mujahedeen outfit in Afghanistan, which was fighting against the Soviet Union, and provided military aid to the Nicaragua to fight against Sandinista regime, which had the backing of Cuba.
Through all these, Reagan in effect escalated the cold war unlike his predecessors, like Nixon and Carter, who followed a policy of ‘détente’. He also instigated the strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a technological program that aimed at improving the US defense, and enabling it to withstand even nuclear attacks. His critics lashed out at him saying that, the SDI would go against the policy of arms control. In fact, many of Reagan’s policies were not just opposed by his critics but also from members of his staff, in particular from the Secretary of State George Shultz. For example, in the Nicaragua conflict, Schultz and some other factions of Reagan’s staff wanted the containment of Sandinistas by negotiating and try to reach an agreement with them, while Reagan wanted the complete ouster of the Sandinista regime.
Along with the cold war Reagan also inherited the Iranian hostage crisis, whereby 52 American hostages taken by the Iranians, were released on the very day and the precise moment of his oath taking ceremony. In 1983, a truckload of explosives were driven into a building housing American military personnel in Lebanon, by the Iranian backed Hezbollah Organization, which left 241 Americans dead. The Reagan government immediately pulled off its remaining US military personnel from Lebanon, without any retaliation. Within a short period, the Iranians would draw the Reagan administration into one of the most bizarre covert operations in the US history.
Certain members of the White house security indulged in a shadow deal with the help of CIA, to sell weapons to Iran and support the guerilla war of the Contras. Both these actions were against the acts of Congress. By selling arms to Iran, an attempt was made to free the hostages held by the Hezbollah. Reagan conveyed that he was ignorant of this deal, yet admitted he had initially supported the arms sales. An independent counsel appointed to investigate this deal found Reagan guilty of, not exercising control over his staff members.
This affair had blemished the image of Reagan, and his foreign policies received heavy criticisms. As Pilger (2004) observes, Reagan survived the Iran contra affair, unlike tens of thousands of his victims.Reagan’s policy is also infamous for the heavy indulgence in Central American conflicts and a drive towards military race. However, Reagan got credit for ending the cold war, though most historians give the credit more to Gorbachev.
Obama’s foreign policy doctrine declares that the US foreign policy would be
“a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness”
His main job, when he took office, was to rebuild the damaged foreign relations, which were destroyed during the Bush administration. He appointed some key members of his staff in the foreign department, like Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, thus emphasizing his strong focus on the foreign policy. One thing refreshing about Obama’s foreign policy is his direct way of reaching out to the people, not just the Governments, of foreign societies. He gave a Presidential interview to an Arab news channel, Al Arabiya and personally conveyed his New Year Greetings to the Iranian people and reached out to the students in Ankara, Turkey.
Barack Obama has been opposing the war on Iraq, even before his presidential campaign. Like Reagan inheriting the cold war and Iran hostage crisis from Carter, Obama too inherited the ‘war on terror’, a war he vehemently opposed, from Bush. However opposing a war as an independent protestor is different from, articulating his foreign policies to the electorates as a presidential candidate. He stated in his presidential campaign that, he was willing to engage in unconditional dialogues with foreign powers from opposing camps. Many observers called it a political misstep, but the Obama camp stuck to its candidate’s statement saying that, there was a need to re-look into the "conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy."In this way, like Reagan, he too set a new trend in the handling of foreign affairs.
Like Reagan, Obama too supported armed resistance against oppressive powers of the world, by backing the French and Britain military incursion in Mali and Libya. However, as far as direct action is concerned, Reagan was lot more aggressive with military intervention in Grenada and the bombing of Libya. Obama, on the other hand, initiated a gradual mass withdrawal from Afghanistan, and this received criticisms from some as a move that let down the other allies fighting there. His handling of the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has brought many negative responses. Reacting to this incident, Mitch McConnell, the senate minority leader, opined that Obama’s passive foreign policy is hurting the nation.In comparison, Reagan’s was a far more direct approach, one that did not deter from aggressive action while Obama’s foreign policy, though tough and resilient, lacks affirmative action.
Both Reagan and Obama took over the country, when the inflation and unemployment rates were at a high. However, their approach to the economic slowdown was drastically different. While Obama believed in governmental assistance, Reagan believed that the government is the problem. Reagan favored less government intrusion and reduced federal welfare programs. He believed that, the welfare systems encouraged dependency on the government and cheating.
The economic goal of the Regan administration was to curb inflation and induce long-term growth. These objectives were not controversial, but their execution and the weight given to each of these objectives, was controversial. His policies aided the expansion of the private sector and pursued supply side economics. He slashed the marginal taxes for the wealthy, reduced the capital-gain tax, and in general created a favorable environment for big businesses and oil companies.
There were some positive outcomes from the so called ‘Reaganomics’. The inflation rate came down drastically in between the years 1980 and 1983, and the country’s long term growth was facilitated by the president’s economic recovery program. However, the policies also drew massive criticisms from many sectors. Roberts, in his article published in 1991, opines that Reagan’s policies produced huge budget deficits, and thus burdened the future American generations with huge debts. Professor Friedman, a liberal democrat, says that either Reagan was a fool or knave.
“On one construction, it was an intellectual error of the first magnitude. On the Other hand, it was deliberate moral irresponsibility on a truly astonishing scale.”
As opposed to the views of Reagan, Obama is keen in Government extending a helping hand to public programs, for the economic recovery. In 2009, he announced a $787 billion economic stimulus to help the American economy survive the global recession. His 2011 State union Address hinted on, reversing the tax cuts for the wealthy, reducing the tax concessions for the oil companies, and increasing the role of Government in health care.
Considering that the country is still to register substantial economic progress, we have to wait before passing judgment on Obama’s policies. However, the 2010 loss suffered by the Democratic Party is largely attributed to the President’s economic policies. Another contributing factor is the relentless opposition faced by his economic recovery programs in the Congress. Stephen (2012) says that, the conservative opposition, which stalled every initiative brought about by the President, is also responsible for the failure of the economy.
There are striking differences between the governance styles of Reagan and Obama. The former was a charismatic personality and skilled orator, who spent the bulk of his life in the public limelight. The latter was a surprise entrant in the presidential race, but his election to the top post was viewed as poetic justice to the African Americans, who were treated as second class citizens for centuries together. Reagan is widely perceived to be a trend setter in American politics while Obama is viewed as a silent partner or a ‘spectator to historical transformation”. One man went out his way to prove the supremacy of America’s military strength, and had a clear national vision that communism was the evil America should be protected from while the other saw economic reforms and job creation as the primary evil to be tackled.
Despite all these differences, if we scrutinize their tenures as Presidents more closely, one cannot but notice some parallels. Both of them saw economic recovery as the major challenge, and pursued peace and to an extent got their wishes. The objectives were the same, only the paths leading to them were different. Reagan ended the old war by aggressive tactics, and Obama has managed to bring back most of the troops from Asia with his so called ‘passive policy’. Economic policies of both of them failed in some fronts, and both of them secured a second term despite these facts. On the occasion of Reagan’s 100th birthday, Obama uttered the following words about the qualities he admired most about Reagan:
“His recognition of the American people's hunger for accountability and change -- putting our nation on a bold new path toward both."
One cannot but agree that, the incumbent President also has some of these traits in abundance. Yes, Obama and Reagan were different, yet in some ways similar.
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