In the aftermath of Obama’s election there were all kinds of wild notions of what it would mean to the future of the nation. One of the many suppositions that was foolishly asserted was the presumption that Obama would be able to project liberal politics into the mainstream. It was assumed that middle America would finally, with Obama as the spokesman embrace liberalism just as Reagan had transmitted conservatism a generation before. I want to take a moment to debunk the myth.
It is true that Obama, like Reagan and FDR inherited a tough economy. Reagan and FDR as opposite as they were politically, both shared an important trait. They were both capable of projecting optimism in harsh times and in the face of daunting challenges. It was their optimistic nature and the confidence it engendered in the nation that explains why both Reagan and FDR remain omnipresent figures today in modern American politics. Their shadows linger over both parties to this day.
Enough about FDR and onto Reagan. I was born in 1966. I remember growing up in Philadelphia and honestly most events from my birth to 1980 when Reagan was elected was all bad news. Vietnam,Assassination,Watergate,Abscam,Energy Crisis,Hostage Crisis,Double Digit Inflation and an outrageous Prime Rate. My remembering the interest rates from the 70’s as a kid, prompted my refusal to bite on a variable interest mortgage rate in 2002 when I bought my house. The only good things in those 14 years was the Moon Landing (I was 3) and the Flyers winning the Stanley Cup. Oh, and the Phillies winning the World Series in 1980 (a very good year). It was depressing growing up in America at this time. Back then they didn’t even have a family film industry, so I couldn’t even go to the movies.
Ronald Reagan changed that. He was so confident and it resonated. I remember people almost feeling embarrassed to be American. He changed that too. He wasn’t angrily asserting pride, but casually reminding us of what it really meant to be an American. History can’t record the morale of a nation, but it was palpably awful.
At first, for all Reagan’s optimism it looked like he was failing. In a city like Philadelphia he was openly compared to Herbert Hoover. It looked like our hope was misguided when you weighed the rhetoric as optimistic as it was to the reality. Inflation and Interest Rates were being dramatically reduced, but at one point in the fall of 1982, unemployment was at 10.4%. Reagan was actually being outpolled by Fritz Mondale!
Reagan, as many have reminded us has delivered many a memorable speech. From "A Time For Choosing" to Normandy to the Challenger Address to his speech at the 1992 Convention. My favorite speech were none of those and truth be told I don’t remember the exact words, but it doesn’t matter, because it was his demeanor and the underlying sentiment that remains with me to this day. I could look it up and find the exact words, but that misses the point. It was a moment in time that has shaped me ever since.
Bear with me now as I explain the setting. I grew up on the corner of Franklin and Fisher in the Logan section of the city. One of five kids, the middle child. When I was a little kid we had a floor model color TV that broke down and couldn’t be fixed. So, we ended up with a small portable black and white Japanese television. We could’ve afforded a color TV if my parents hadn’t insisted on sending us all through Catholic school and putting it towards tuition instead a more desired TV.
When Reagan was making his address I went to my parents room which was the back room where they had one of those cheap black and white tv’s. If you don’t know anything about portable TV’s, the most important part was that the antenna was really cheap. So shoddy that it snapped off at the base. The only way to get reception was to take a wire hanger and insert it into the hole where the antenna snapped off at the base. I never gave it a thought. My dad was lying on the bed, I was sitting upright on the floor with my back leaning on the end of the bed. Reagan said something to the effect: "Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better". Was that exactly what he said? No, but I don’t care. When people tell you it isn’t "what" you say, but "how you" say it, that was Reagan to a tee. He struck a tone that inspired in the worst time. Just like FDR uttered "We have nothing to fear but fear itself". Building confidence with a tone of voice that says everything is going to be ok. That sentiment, that projection of abundant optimism that a brighter future is in the offing. I believed again. But more imprtantly, he was RIGHT! Things did get better, much,much better. For the first time in my life I could believe in someone and be confident they were true.
In remembering Reagan and studying FDR I was amused by those who believed Obama would be the liberal version of Reagan. Just as Reagan validated my nasceant optimism, so too has Obama’s detachment and professorial musings outraged middle America.
Reagan, unlike Obama and most of Reagan’s conservative admirers understood that Middle America is always looking over its shoulder. The working man is always concerned about money, in good times and bad. He expressed his conservative principles with a civil tone that allayed the perennial fears of the mainstream,the heartland of America. And when things did turn around as he calmly assured us it would, he was rewarded by the American people with an enduring love by his supporters and respect, however ruefully of his bitterest detractors.
Obama does not understand the mainstream because he is absorbed by his intellect and its’ conclusions. Obama may be a thoughtful man, but when times are bad he has consistently demonstrated an incapacity to project his liberal principles to allay economic reality as Reagan was successful in projecting conservatism.
Obama has admirers, but in the years and decades to come it is Reagan and FDR that will stand the test of time. If Obama can project hope in his tone, he has a shot a immortality. History will not be kind.