By now, most people have seen the unnerving footage of Barack Obama's interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal's editorial board in which he intimates that Ronald Reagan was a "transformational" figure who "changed...America." The senator also claims that "The Republicans were the party of ideas...over the last 10, 15 years."
Many questions have been asked, and jeremiads written, about Senator Obama's decision to invoke the infamous name of Reagan now, during a critical stage in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama's supporters, and other persons acting in the interest of fairness, have sought to contextualize Obama's remarks. Obama wasn't praising President Reagan, they say, he was using him merely as an example. Obama wasn't castigating Democrats over the last ten or fifteen years, but simply analyzing the reality of the political landscape during that era.
These arguments are compelling. Although Obama does manage to say that Bill Clinton did not change America as Ronald Reagan did, Senator Obama does not go into effusive praise of the former Governor of California turned US President. And so, it would seem, the incident is resolved and the narrative moves on. Perhaps Obama made a strategic error mentioning Reagan; maybe he was slightly pandering for Independent and GOP "Dem for a Day" votes in the Nevada Caucus, but little else.
Unfortunately for the Illinois Senator and his backers, however, there is more to the story of Reagan and Obama.
1. Team Obama made the decision to consciously pattern the senator's campaign after Ronald Reagan's presidential candidacy:
His (Obama's) advisers also invoke as inspiration a surprising Republican: Ronald Reagan.
"Now, it is blasphemy for Democrats," Obama pollster Cornell Belcher said of Reagan, "but that hope and optimism that was Ronald Reagan" allowed him to "transcend" ideological divisions within his own party and the general electorate.
Seen in this context, Obama's 'gaffe' of praising Reagan looks much less unintentional than it did at first glance. Instead, it appears to be but a timely manifestation of his campaign's strategy. This article was written almost seven months ago, so this Obama 'Reagan Strategy' is far from its infancy.
The other important aspect of this passage is "the general electorate." Senator Obama won Iowa with a large share of Independents and even some members of the GOP who changed their party affiliation in order to caucus for him. This statement by Obama's pollster underlines the candidate's tactic: Play for the Indys and the Republicans. And as the Nevada election gets set to take place today, this approach is very evident ('Be a Democrat for a Day' Obama flier).
If Obama made any 'mistake' mentioning Ronald Reagan and the 'party of ideas' during his interview, it was that he did so clumsily and too overtly. The intent of the remarks appear to be in line with his campaign's strategy but the senator may have been too obvious in, as many refer to it, his 'dogwhistling.'
2. Here is an article which mentions Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, while profiling the Illinois senator:
Elsewhere, Obama offers a caricature of the left’s views in order to assert his own supposed realism. "I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview," he writes. "I couldn’t be persuaded that U.S. multinationals and international terms of trade were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people."...Obama backed the Cold War: "Given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, staying ahead of the Soviets militarily seemed the sensible thing to do."
These are not the words of someone who casually brought up Ronald Reagan. As he writes himself, Obama "defend(ed) aspects of Reagan's worldview." This is somebody who, after consideration, decided that he wished to protect Reagan's outlook and who supported the idea of The Arms Race, a concept which was heartily endorsed and supported by President Reagan.
In his remark on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Obama likewise shows a very pro-Reagan tint to his thinking. Some more background on the former Republican president's approach to the Soviets and Afghanistan:
Reagan held that the fundamental threat to peace and stability in the region was not the Arab-Israeli conflict but the Soviet Union and its policies. It was therefore important to restore American capability and credibility which could be facilitated by building up American forces to deal with the region. Unlike Carter, he assumed that the main focus of American interests and concern in the Middle East was the Persian Gulf sector, including Afghanistan which could pose a direct threat to the security of the Gulf. Reagan's policy toward Afghanistan maintained that while the United States would employ no military forces of its own, given, in part, that it was unable to secure the support of its allies, it would nonetheless provide aid to the Afghan rebels to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces.
One of the purported byproducts of our Afghan assistance: Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Obama bought into what Reagan was selling: Because the Communists were on the move, America needed to bolster its military and defeat the USSR in The Arms Race.
3. The final instance of Obama's identification with Reagan is the most personal one I have found. In the video of Obama extolling Reagan's presidency above, the senator mentions that "I do not want to present myself as some sort of...singular figure." He goes on to say that Reagan tapped into the collective will of the people of his time, and that the President was able to harness the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit America was ready for in 1980.
But it was Reagan, according to the senator, who "changed ...America." Not Nixon, not Clinton. The implication is that Reagan was a 'singular figure' who was able to allegedly unite the country in a way that, say, Jimmy Carter or the George H.W. Bush of 1980 were not.
This information is relevant for the last reference:
In private, Obama likens himself to Reagan, according to some of his friends. He believes that the very act of Americans choosing to elect him would amount to the biggest foreign policy advance of the past 20 years, would immediately change the way, say, a young boy in Lahore views this country, would crush the propaganda gains of radical Islam since the end of the first Gulf War, would heal the scar that serves as a reminder of America's original sin (slavery), would directly engage the mass Muslim world in a way that no one who voted for oil or empire could, and ... you get the idea.
Not only is Obama (supposedly -- this is secondhand information obtained from Obama's friend(s)) directly comparing himself with Reagan, but, as with his discussion in the video, he is very much conceiving of himself as a 'singular figure' in the way that he sees Reagan. In fact, not only would he be visualizing himself as Reagan, but as a kind of Super-Reagan who also has the ability to heal the scars of slavery and defuse the propaganda gains by radical Islam, etc. -- things which Reagan could not have done due to his ethnicity and cultural background.
And this 'Super-Reagan'-ness, this singularity of figure, is part of what drives the Messianic narrative which Obama and his campaign have cultivated. Not only could Obama be Reagan according to this line of thinking, he could out-Reagan Reagan and do so as a Democrat, to boot.
There is more, but this will have to suffice for now. What's important to understand from these three examples (in addition to the video of Obama's interview) is that they form a pattern. By themselves, they do not mean much. Taken together, however, they start to form a clearer picture of where Barack Obama is coming from, how he sees himself and how he wants to present himself to the American people through his campaigning.
Crediting Reagan and Republicans in one interview demonstrates little: Obama could have been tired, could have been bored, could have just minced words.
But trumpeting aspects of Reagan's presidency in his book The Audacity of Hope (widely understood to be a book written for his presidential aspirations), praising the former president and his party in an interview, patterning his campaign (a campaign which Obama says he built from scratch in the interview the videos excerpt) after Reagan's and supposedly likening himself to Reagan amongst his friends is not a series of coincidences. Obama is far too disciplined for such sustained miscalculation.
Barack Obama is sometimes referred to as a candidate with "No 'there' there." When it comes to the connection between Senator Obama and Ronald Reagan, however, there is a 'there' there. The 'there' exists because Obama wants it to exist -- it is a conscious and consistent strategy for him and his campaign. Whether the senator's co-optation of The Gipper is meant merely as a Republican/Independent 'dogwhistle' or for the ears of the entire electorate is unclear. But after this videotaped interview, all have heard.