The Magazine

He's No Ronald Reagan

Obama's bait-and-switch agenda.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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On July 29, 1981, barely six months into his presidency and in the face of an economic crisis of historic proportions, Ronald Reagan succeeded in persuading both houses of Congress to pass dramatic tax cuts that set the stage for nearly three decades of vigorous economic growth. In doing so, he achieved a goal he had long and publicly pursued. In his most watched and influential speeches, Reagan had consistently called for just such substantial tax cuts. Indeed, he had made them a centerpiece of the conservative governing philosophy he had propounded on the national stage for going on two decades.

Barack Obama, barely six months into his presidency and in the face of another economic crisis of historic proportions, has unsuccessfully pressed Congress to pass, before its summer recess, comprehensive and costly health care reform that he contends is critical to the nation's long-term social and economic well-being. But neither this nor the other complex and far-reaching proposals Obama has sought to enact with heedless speed can readily be derived from his most influential speeches. Indeed, these measures, all dramatically extending federal power, are at odds with the governing philosophy, at once progressive and moderate, that he assiduously put before the public.

One can quarrel about the efficacy and justice of the Reagan tax cuts and the Obama health care expansion, but one thing is plain from the political styles that these presidents have brought to the passage of their signature domestic legislation. Reagan's forthright approach is more consistent with democratic norms and the presuppositions of a free society than Obama's hide-the-ball tactics.

In October 1964, Reagan delivered a speech on national television sponsored by Barry Goldwater's campaign that placed the aging actor on the path to the presidency. All the familiar elements are present in "A Time for Choosing." To preserve "the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers," Reagan argued, it was imperative to rein in government by cutting taxes and curbing spending, and to defeat rather than accommodate communism.

In July 1980, in his acceptance address to the Republican National Convention, Reagan declared that limiting government to preserve individual freedom was his paramount domestic goal, and he repeated his campaign promise to achieve it by passing "a 30 percent reduction in income tax rates."

And in January 1981, in his first inaugural address, confronting high inflation, high unemployment, and high taxes, President Reagan famously proclaimed that "in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Seeking (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to avoid misunderstanding, he insisted, "It's not my intention to do away with government" but "rather to make it work." That required "removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity." A critical first step was "to lighten our punitive tax burden" inherited from the Carter era.

So when, in late July 1981, the House and Senate passed tax cuts that averaged about 25 percent for individuals and included substantial reductions for business, no competent observer could claim to be surprised, except perhaps by the new president's political skill in assembling congressional majorities despite the Democrats' numerical superiority in the House and the skepticism of leading Republicans in the Senate. To be sure, over the course of eight years in office Reagan fell short of his aims, failing to reduce the size of government and spending and piling up large deficits. But there was never confusion about what those aims were.

In contrast, there seems to be considerable confusion about President Obama's aims, and plenty of competent observers were flabbergasted shortly after he took office when, notwithstanding an economic crisis that he himself declared the worst since the Great Depression, he called for and signed into law a $787 billion stimulus package short on stimulus spending, high on transfer payments, and larded with pork aimed at pet Democratic party special interests; rolled out a 2010 budget that, according to Congressional Budget Office projections, would quadruple the 2008 Bush deficit that candidate Obama had decried as intolerable; and announced his determination to pass comprehensive health care reform before year's end although the flaws in the current health care system had nothing to do with the toxic assets and frozen credit markets afflicting the economy.