Obama's Fear of the Reagan Narrative
At a closed-door White House meeting this month, President Barack Obama justified his repeated concessions to the Right as necessitated by its success over three decades in selling Ronald Reagan’s anti-government message to broad sectors of the American public.
The National Journal reported that Obama met with liberal economists Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Alan Blinder and Robert Reich on Dec. 7, just hours before a press conference at which the President criticized his liberal “base” for taking “sanctimonious” and “purist” positions rather than making the compromises required to help Americans in the real world.
In both venues, Obama defended his deal with Republicans on extending George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich as necessary to gain Republican support for extended unemployment benefits and for tax breaks to boost the economy and help working- and middle-class Americans.
However, at the earlier White House meeting, Obama told the economists that he felt handcuffed by the Right’s ability to rally Americans on behalf of Reagan’s “government-is-the-problem” message. "It was hard to change the narrative after 30 years” of Republican repetition about the evils of big government, one participant quoted Obama as saying.
“He seemed to be looking for a way to reassure the base” about where his heart really was on these questions, said the participant who spoke anonymously. “Or maybe it was just to reassure himself.”
The comment suggests that Obama understands the political dilemma facing the nation at a time when action by the federal government is the only feasible way to confront monumental problems, such as rebuilding the country’s decaying infrastructure, spurring job growth in environmental and other fields, and reversing the concentration of wealth at the top.
Obama feels hemmed in by a political dynamic shaped by a media/political system dominated by Reagan’s anti-government orthodoxy.
That Obama complains about his powerlessness in the face of this dynamic could be another wake-up call to American progressives that they cannot continue their decades-old neglect of media and think tanks, that they finally must engage the Right in what it calls “the war of ideas.”
Since the 1970s, it has been the prevailing view on the Left that media should be a much lower priority than, say, “local organizing,” a view encapsulated in the slogan, “think globally, act locally.”
What the Left has consistently failed to do is to make even a modest effort to match the Right in its outreach to the American people. Not only did the Left in the 1970s throw away what was then its lead in media and think tanks, but it has generally ignored the worsening crisis brought on by the Right’s massive investment in messaging.
Even as recently as this year, wealthy progressives chose to pull the plug on Air America Radio, rather than invest the money and talent necessary to make it a counterpoint to the Right’s dominance of the AM radio dial.
Many on the Left have felt that it is the responsibility of politicians and journalists to take on the propagandists and political warriors of the Right whatever the personal costs. That attitude, however, has caused many pols and reporters to opt for the avoidance of risk. [For more on this history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
The AWOL Obama
Obama generally has fit into the mold of a risk-avoidance pol. Despite his protestations that he is eager for a debate on Reaganism and its trickle-down economics, he has shown little stomach for such a fight. Indeed, when he’s had the chance, Obama has followed the timid pattern of most national Democrats in finding excuses to praise Ronald Reagan.
One of my early concerns about Obama came in January 2008 when he went out of his way in an interview with Nevada’s Reno Gazette-Journal to hail Reagan as a transformational president in contrast to Bill Clinton, the husband of Obama’s then-rival Hillary Clinton.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said.
Obama later explained that he wasn’t endorsing the direction that Reagan took the country, but was simply acknowledging a historical reality.
However, his comments went beyond simply noting a fact. Obama portrayed Reagan as a leader who carried out a necessary mid-course correction for the United States and helped restore a spirit of dynamism. Obama said:
“I think they [Americans] felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
In this attempt to position himself as some post-partisan leader able to praise the accomplishments of Ronald Reagan, there was a troubling mix of naivete and opportunism. In truth, real accountability was never part of Reaganism.
On the domestic side, Reagan oversaw the dismantling of regulatory structures that restrained the excesses of Wall Street investment banks, the energy industry and other key economic sectors. Many of today’s problems – from the mortgage meltdown to the nation’s wasteful energy policies – can be traced to Reagan’s contempt for genuine accountability.
There was even less accountability in Reagan’s foreign policy, one of the most brutal and corrupt in U.S. history, violating both domestic and international law as well as the Constitution.
Reagan’s clandestine dealings with Iran and Iraq – often in defiance of Congress – remain shrouded in secrecy and deception to this day. Also suppressed has been the full story of how Reagan tolerated drug traffickers who operated under the cover of his favorite covert operations (Nicaragua and Afghanistan).
Even more troubling, Reagan aided and abetted mass slaughters in Central America, including acts of genocide in Guatemala, but neither he nor any of his senior advisers faced any meaningful accountability for their actions. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
Similarly, the dynamism that Reagan supposedly restored was another dubious assessment by Obama. The truth is that the Reagan era represented less the mythic “morning in America” than a cold dusk for the American dream.
Behind Reagan’s anti-government, free-market nostrums, U.S. industry moved factories off-shore; industrial cities were ravaged; unions were busted; education standards declined; and the middle class stagnated or worse.
Obama could have raised these points in the newspaper interview, but he apparently felt that would carry political risks. So, he praised Reagan, presumably trying to appeal to some Republican cross-over voters.
In 2009, President Obama also joined with Nancy Reagan in announcing plans for the centennial celebration of Reagan’s birth next February. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Dubious Praise for Reagan and “Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?”]
One has to begin to wonder if and when President Obama plans to start challenging the fallacies of Reaganism. Instead, Obama not only compromises with Republicans as they push Reagan’s discredited economic theories but Obama even joins in justifying those ideas, as Krugman – one of Obama’s guests at the private Dec. 7 meeting – has noted.
“President Obama,” wrote Krugman in a New York Times column, “has consistently tried to reach across the aisle by lending cover to right-wing myths. He has praised Reagan for restoring American dynamism (when was the last time you heard a Republican praising F.D.R.?), adopted G.O.P. rhetoric about the need for the government to tighten its belt even in the face of recession, offered symbolic freezes on spending and federal wages.
“None of this stopped the right from denouncing him as a socialist. But it helped empower bad ideas, in ways that can do quite immediate harm. Right now Mr. Obama is hailing the tax-cut deal as a boost to the economy — but Republicans are already talking about spending cuts that would offset any positive effects from the deal. And how effectively can he oppose these demands, when he himself has embraced the rhetoric of belt-tightening?”
So, here’s the immediate danger for the United States: As Reagan’s “zombie” ideas remain dominant, the nation has neither a Left that can communicate meaningfully with the American people about possible government-led solutions nor a president who dares to take the lead.
Instead there’s mutual finger-pointing.
While continuing to do little about its media deficit, the Left accuses Obama of failing to use his bully pulpit. Simultaneously, Obama – seeing no effective counterweight on the Left to the Right’s media power – shies away from what he fears would be a political suicide mission.
The end result is the continuation -- and even expansion -- of failed ideas just as Americans desperately need good ones if they hope to salvage their country’s future.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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