Sen. Obama's Transformative President
In a previous post, I showed how Sen. Obama's comment that, unlike the Democrats, the "Republicans were the party of ideas ... over the last 10-15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom" was a completely wrong claim, especially given that it was the Democratic party that had mostly challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom during this period. Sen. Obama, who has repeatedly portrayed himself as the candidate who challenges conventional wisdom (meaning that it is a positive thing to challenge conventional wisdom), is now furious with Sen. Clinton for using his nonsensical claim against him in an ad - a claim that could reasonably, from the context, be inferred as being favorable to the Republican party and unfavorable to the Democratic party. I will likely come back to that dispute in a future post but Peter Daou's post at Daily Kos is worth reading in the meantime.
In this post, I want to actually focus my attention on Sen. Obama's comments on Reagan - using some historical Presidential approval ratings for comparison - for a couple of reasons. One, there are equally pernicious Republican myths - in favor of Reagan and against Clinton - that were advanced by Sen. Obama in his interview. More importantly, the historical data shows that Sen. Obama was again completely wrong in how he has construed history and who among the two (Reagan v. Clinton) really tapped into the public and transformatively rallied them around his vision more broadly and more effectively - regardless of whether their visions were good or bad. If a top Democratic Presidential candidate feels comfortable peddling these pernicious myths rather than correcting them, it behooves us, as progressives, to correct the record.
So, let's go back to Sen. Obama's comments to the Reno Gazette Journal Editorial Board. This section starts around the 18:45 mark (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that you know Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60's and the 70's and, you know, government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. And I think people just tapped into – he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want you know a return to that sense of dynamism and you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing, alright?
Needless to say, Sen. Obama's claims about Reagan were filled with deeply ahistorical gibberish that could have been lifted off Joe Lieberman's book or right-wing websites. To see why, let's start by looking at some historical data on Presidential approval ratings (chart from the WSJ, analysis below the picture):
A review of the data indicates that Reagan's approval rating dived sharply over the first couple of years due to a poor economy, then started to rise through the next few years (including his re-election) as the economy recovered, and then dived again in 1986 after Iran-Contra became public, before making a final, modest gain in the final months of his second term. In contrast, Clinton's approval rating dropped soon after he entered office, rose roughly after the passage of NAFTA, dropped again during the healthcare fight, and then, starting in early 1995, showed an almost uninterrupted upward trajectory through the rest of his years in office - with a stabilization of his approval ratings at ~60% during the last two years.
If you review the data carefully, you will also notice the following:
- Ronald Reagan had a lower average approval rating in office than Bill Clinton
- Bill Clinton, by the time he left office, had a somewhat higher approval rating than what he had when he entered office
- Ronald Reagan, by the time he left office, had a somewhat lower approval rating than what he had when he entered office
- Bill Clinton, by the time he left office, had a higher approval rating than Reagan had when Reagan left office
- In the last few years of their 8-year terms, Clinton's approval ratings were roughly 10-points higher than Reagan's
If those statistics are not bad enough to make Sen. Obama look terrible for his hagiographic nonsense about Ronald Reagan and his alleged transformative powers, note another key aspect buried in the data.
For roughly 4 years out of 8, Reagan's approval ratings were below or barely approaching 50%; in contrast, Clinton's approval rating was at or below 50% for less than 3 years out of 8. In other words, if we compare their Presidencies, Bill Clinton better united the country for a noticeably longer period of time around his vision and policies than did Ronald Reagan, and Clinton built that unity over the latter part of his Presidency as his legacy became clearer. Reagan, on the other hand, did not really unite the country in any consistent manner around his vision and policies - his approval rating bounced up and down over the years and was lower in his later years (~50% or slightly less for the most part) than during the middle of his Presidency. Put another way, Reagan was not much of a visionary uniter or transformative figure as his Presidency evolved into its final years - unlike Clinton.
Every one of the above data points is an indictment of Sen. Obama's astonishingly ahistorical and obviously pandering praise of Reagan's alleged (greater) transformative power over Clinton's. Put another way, if we look at the magnitudes and trends in approval ratings, the President who more effectively "tapped into" the public over the life of his 8-year term was Clinton, not Reagan. The "fundamentally different path" that Sen. Obama believed Reagan put the country on, was in fact, not particularly welcomed by the majority of the public through roughly half of his term, whereas the fundamentally different path that Clinton put the country on was welcomed by the majority of the public through roughly 5 years of his term - particularly the last 5 years when his legacy started to become much more evident. In fact, if you read my post on the domestic policy legacy of the Clinton-Gore administration you will notice how the Clinton administration - imperfect, as it was - made substantially noteworthy transformations on the positive side in comparison to the hard-right Reagan administration. Partly because of that, Clinton got higher approval ratings in his second term.Moreover, as Paul Krugman said:
Um, Greg – I thought everyone knew that the “party of ideas” line came from Moynihan. The weirdness of Obama’s use of the phrase came in the fact that he applied it to the Republican Party of the “last 10 or 15 years,” and suggested that the party of Tom DeLay and George W. Bush — a party that had nothing much to say except tax cuts good, terrorists bad — was “challenging conventional wisdom”.
It’s the same kind of time displacement, but in reverse, that was involved in placing America’s renewed sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship back in the Reagan years, when it didn’t actually happen until the middle of the Clinton years.
I don’t know what’s going on here; but anyway, the fact that Moynihan used the line a long time ago is not helpful to Obama’s case.
Krugman also said:
So, Candidate A says things like this:
I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they 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.
And Candidate B says things like this:
If you go back and look at our history, we were most successful when we had that balance between an effective, vigorous government and a dynamic, appropriately regulated market. And we have systematically diminished the role and the responsibility of our government, and we have watched our market become imbalanced. I want to get back to the appropriate balance of power between government and the market … Inequality is growing. The middle class is stalled. The American dream is premised on a growing economy where people are in a meritocracy and, if they’re willing to work hard, they will realize the fruits of their labor.
And somehow many people believe that Candidate A is the true progressive — he wasn’t really saying that Reagan was right — and that Candidate B, despite the progressive talk, is just Bush the third.
These people could be right; politicians have been known to say things they don’t believe. But where does their certainty come from?