"...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....", Obama said.
It was during a media interview in January, 2008, at the start of the primary campaign. A few Democrats - including then-opponent US Sen. John Edwards - criticized Obama for citing Reagan as an example given that Reagan's reactionary beliefs were antithetical to Democrats' most basic values.
Right now, Obama should try to follow Reagan's example in another important way: He should
open up and speak more about his most deeply-held political convictions.
What is Obama's "ideology"? Maybe he feels he doesn't have one strong philosophy, but, what are a few positions that he feels most strongly about?
Everyone always knew where Reagan stood. Reagan came in preaching about reducing the size, role and costs of government and he never stopped. He was an anti-communist coming in, and, while he negotiated important treaties with the then-Soviet Union, he always displayed his suspicions about the USSR. (Remember S.D.I.?)
Obama desparately needs to identify and share a few "heartfelt" convictions.
Why is this so urgent right now? Because Obama has damaged his image in recent months by rushing to compromise so much that it hasn't been clear what his original position is.
Usually, a politician starts negotiations by clearly articulating what he feels most strongly about. In the recent debt-ceiling crisis, Obama never really did that. He said a bunch of different things at different times. He appeared more concerned with the "inside strategy" game than showing the American people his firm beliefs. So, for instance, while he spoke, at times. of the importance of raising revenue (taxes) as part of a solution, he also didn't push hard to keep taxes in the final deal. Instead, he gave in on that, and the Republicans got a deal including only spending cuts.
Now, maybe Obama was calculating that he'll make his real push for a "balanced approach" as he approaches the 2012 presidential campaign season and he argues for expiration of the Bush tax cuts. But, why doesn't he understand that it helps his image to show us what he cares about all the time? Even if he fights for his values and loses, Americans would know what he felt was worth fighting for. Right now, Obama's image is that of a guy who is easily pushed around at the negotiating table --- someone for whom talk is too cheap and who doesn't seem able to dig his heels and both say "No" and mean "No."
(Obama would also benefit by simply not talking so much. He's so over-exposed now it's ridiculous. I think when some people see him on television, the impact has been tremendously diminished before he opens his mouth. He should hold far less public appearances, and, when, he does speak, try to say something more substantive)
One thing I've learned about American politics is that people genuinely appreciate and credit a President who says what he stands for --- even if people disagree with that President. Again, the best example is The Gipper.
I hope that Obama learns and applies this lesson in the months ahead. If not, it will likely impact the 2012 presidential election.
From the outset, Obama has seemed surprisingly oblivioius to how his image is impacting his success or failure as President. For example, when he came into office and advocated passage of the economic stimulus, he didn't pay attention to some's concerns about the government spending so much money. When Obama had to help bail out banks, A.I.G. and the auto iindustry, again, he did so without seeming to pay much attention to the impact on the image of the President, the US Congress or the federal government.
Then, the whole way Obama went about pushing his health care reform bill exacerbated this problem enormously. Not only did he and his White House team do a poor job of leading the health care reform effort and allow way too much of a swampy, messy process for Congress to handle, but, again, Obama didn't make much of an attempt to alleviate the reasonable concerns of people about how all the changes would be paid for.
So, now, Obama has gone so far the other way - rushing to cut billions the budget to make sure he appears centrist enough after the 2010 election results --that it's hard to know where he stands.
For instance, wouldn't it help if he told us if he will fight to the end to protect Medicare and Social Security? Or, if he feels that certain aspects of Medicare should be examined for potential savings in the future? Obama appointed a bipartisan commission headed by former Wyoming US Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to make recommendations for debt-reduction, but, when the commission came out with a report that suggested some cuts to entitlement programs, Obama was silent. He has avoided taking a real stand on entitlements, choosing to allow observers to conclude he wants to avoid really getting into it much before the 2012 election.
Well, that choice of being silent and afraid of risks has hurt Obama. He simply has not learned that people would have more respect for him as a leader if he took chances to fight for what he believed was right. Too often, we've seen Obama fight for a "middle position." Maybe, he'll choose to fight for total protection of Medicare.
On Afghanistan, it's hard to tell if Obama really believes the US should keep troops there or if he's just going along with the generals' position. On the Middle East, at the start of his presidency, it appeared Obama might be a bit tougher on Israel (a welcome change) but, in the past six months or year, he seems to have morphed into taking the same "middle ground" positions of past Presidents.
I could go on, but my point remains the same. Obama, in the end, may want to be the ultimate compromiser, but, he'd be much better at compromising and leading the country, if he first
tells us all where he really stands.