In May 2010, Barack Obama invited a small group of presidential historians to the White House for a working supper in the Family Dining Room. It was the second time he'd had the group in since taking office, and as he sat down across the table from his wife Michelle, the President pressed his guests for lessons from his predecessors. But as the conversation progressed, it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln's team of rivals or Kennedy's Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office. Obama and Reagan share a number of gifts but virtually no priorities. And yet Obama was clearly impressed by the way Reagan had transformed Americans' attitude about government. The 44th President regarded the 40th, said one participant, as a vital "point of reference." Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan's diaries and attended the May dinner, left with a clear impression that Obama had found a role model. "There are policies, and there is persona, and a lot can be told by persona," he says. "Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion."
When Obama stood before Congress, the Cabinet and the American people to deliver his second State of the Union address, both the Reagan persona and policies put in appearances. He proposed a freeze in discretionary spending and federal salaries, a push to simplify the tax code and billions in cuts to the defense budget, and he made new calls for a bipartisan effort to repair Social Security. Each of these had been proposed before by another third-year President coming off a midterm defeat in a period of high unemployment. "Let us, in these next two years — men and women of both parties, every political shade — concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government," Reagan said in his 1983 State of the Union, "not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics." (See Reagan in TIME's list of the top 10 memorable debate moments.)
At a glance, it's hard to imagine a President who had less in common with Reagan than the Ivy League lawyer from Hawaii who seeks larger federal investments, a bigger social safety net and new regulations for Wall Street and Big Oil. But under the surface, there is no mistaking Obama's increasing reliance on his predecessor's career as a helpful template for his own. Since the November elections, Obama has brought corporate executives into the White House, reached out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and made compromise his new watchword. He signed a surprise $858 billion tax cut that would have made Reagan weep with joy and huddled with Reagan's former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein for lessons learned when the Gipper governed amid economic troubles. Over the Christmas break, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted that Obama was reading a Reagan biography, and just to confirm the bond, Obama recently wrote an homage to Reagan for USA Today. "Reagan recognized the American people's hunger for accountability and change," Obama wrote, conferring on Reagan two of his most cherished political slogans. (See "From Actor to Politician: 1966, Ronald Reagan's Pivotal Year.")
Every man who occupies the Oval Office discovers that the place is haunted — by both the achievements and the failures of his predecessors. It is only natural for them to ask, How will I stack up? Where will history rank me? And do I really belong here with the likes of Washington, Jefferson and all the rest? LBJ worried constantly about Eisenhower's opinion. Reagan often modeled himself in style on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whom he cast his first vote for President, in 1932. George H.W. Bush asked himself, Can I be another Teddy Roosevelt? When George W. Bush was asked after his first term whether he thought more or less highly of any of his predecessors, he replied that having sat in the chair himself, he thought more highly of all of them.
Obama's affection for Reagan's political style carries with it a clear self-interest. White House aides gaze fondly at the arc of the Reagan presidency in part because they pray Obama's will mirror it. Both men entered office in wave elections in which the political center made a historic shift. Both faced deep economic downturns with spiking unemployment in their first term. Both relied heavily on the power of oratory. "Our hope," admits Gibbs, "is the story ends the same way." (See "The Reagan Revelation.")
What Reagan Taught Obama
In many ways, the Gipper gave Obama his start. Obama's first public political act occurred on Feb. 18, 1981, just 29 days after Reagan took the oath of office in Washington. The 19-year-old sophomore, who had just abandoned the nickname Barry for his birth name Barack, climbed onto an outdoor stage at Occidental College to urge his school to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. "There's a struggle going on," he called out. "I say, there's a struggle going on." As he spoke, Reagan was already laying the groundwork to shift U.S. policy on South Africa in the opposite direction, giving cover to the all-white government under a policy called constructive engagement. (Comment on this story.)
In the years that followed, Reagan would come to epitomize all that Obama opposed. Reagan cut social spending in America's cities, backed what Obama called "death squads" in El Salvador and began to build what Obama regarded as an "ill conceived" missile-defense shield. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote later, recalling the classroom debates in his courses on international affairs. When he graduated from Columbia in 1983, Obama decided to become a community organizer. "I'd pronounce the need for change," Obama wrote in his memoir. "Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds." A decade later, he was still at it, leading a 1992 Illinois voter-registration effort aimed at breaking the Reagan coalition's hold on his state's electoral votes.
But in Obama's story line, Reagan has been more than just the antagonist. As the 1980s rolled on and Obama matured, Reagan became a model for leadership. The attraction was less substantive than stylistic and instinctive. Both had strong mothers and dysfunctional fathers. Both prided themselves on bringing people together. Obama even conceded that he sometimes felt the emotional pull of Reagan's vision. "I understood his appeal," Obama recalled in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. "Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies." The Great Communicator, it seems, had struck a chord.
This admiration stayed with Obama after he rose to the U.S. Senate and as he weighed a run at the White House. In late 2006, his top strategist, David Axelrod, laid out an Obama-as-Reagan theory of the race. "I remember talking about the fact that this had the potential to be one of those big-change elections like 1980," Axelrod says now. "The Republican project seemed to have run out of gas." Axelrod believed the political pendulum, which had swung left with the New Deal and had been reversed by Reagan, was once again reaching the end of its arc. (See Patti Davis on her father Ronald Reagan's best qualities.)
Among Obama loyalists, the Reagan theory was received wisdom, and for political reasons it was closely held. In January 2008, Obama broke cover. "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," Obama told a newspaper editorial board in Nevada. "He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, We want clarity, we want optimism." Obama's comments inflamed the Democratic left (not to mention the Clinton operation), but his aides thought little of it at the time. "I basically told headquarters, 'Sorry I didn't call this in,'" remembers Gibbs, who was traveling with Obama at the time. "I had just heard him say this so many times."
In the 2008 general election, Obama's aides saw their challenge as the same one Reagan faced against Jimmy Carter: a need to demonstrate authority and credibility to the American people, many of whom thought Reagan might not be suitable as Commander in Chief. While Reagan solidified his support in a televised debate with Carter, Obama did it by outmaneuvering John McCain with his far steadier handling of the financial collapse. Obama's campaign team even sought for a time to stage an event at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan made history.
Theory into Practice
Shortly after the election, reporters Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson asked Obama if he thought his victory marked the end of the Reagan era. "What Reagan ushered in was a skepticism toward government solutions to every problem," Obama said. "I don't think that has changed." But then he went on to say he believed his election would spell "an end to the knee-jerk reaction toward the New Deal and Big Government." In Obama's mind, his election was not an endorsement of the outsize government role that Reagan battled — bureaucratic, ever expanding, self-interested — but a cry for government that could carry out its basic missions more effectively. "I think what you're seeing is a correction to the correction," Obama explained. (See Reagan in TIME's list of the top 10 political defections.)
That's not the sort of slogan that fits easily on a bumper sticker. One reason was that, unlike Reagan's, Obama's central theme remains somewhat mysterious. No one was unclear about Reagan's guiding philosophy: "Government is the problem," he declared on his Inauguration Day, and by then he had been saying it for nearly 20 years. Obama's is more complex. He wants to reset the public's attitude toward government, reverse 30 years of skepticism and mistrust and usher in a new era in which government solutions are again seen as part of the answer to the nation's ills. But the yearlong health care debate only reminded Americans of government's tendency to slow things down, muddle the choices and perhaps make them more expensive. A September Gallup poll found that 7 in 10 Americans had a negative impression of the federal government; they used words like too big, confused and corrupt to describe it. Obama's signature initiative, a vast expansion of the federal role in health care, has mostly polled under 50% since mid-2009.
Yet even the midterm wipeout has become part of the borrowed Reagan script. For months, aides like Axelrod warned Obama to expect a drop in the polls like the one Reagan suffered during the 1982 recession. Reagan "wasn't the Great Communicator then," notes one senior Obama aide. Just as Reagan's revolutionary agenda coincided with a historic recession, massive unemployment and a humbling defeat in the 1982 midterms, the story went, Obama's new spending programs coincided with a historic recession, deep unemployment and midterms that cost the Democrats control of Congress. As the 2010 elections approached, White House aides struggled to recast press expectations in the mold of Reagan's early struggles. "The most analogous election to the midterms probably isn't the environment Clinton faced in 1994," argued communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "It's the one Reagan faced in 1982."
This is where the Obama-Reagan comparison begins to break down. Lou Cannon, who wrote the Reagan biography that Obama read on vacation, points out that economic growth in the U.S. in the four quarters following the 1982 elections averaged a steroidal 7%. Most economists expect the U.S. economy to grow no more than half as fast this year. "If you were to say to anyone now that the U.S. would have a 7% growth rate in 2011, they would be writing the second Inaugural speech already," says Cannon.
Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff, believes that Obama and Reagan share some traits: both loners more than backslappers, both heavily reliant on their spouses, both more trusting of their instincts than their advisers. But the 44th President has some ways to go before matching the 40th in the communications department. "Obama for the first two years has tried to forge a consensus in Washington," Duberstein says. "He needs to take a page from Reagan and forge a consensus in America. Let his aides worry about the back and forth in D.C. He needs to be communicating with the American people." (See TIME's 2004 Appreciation on Reagan.)
When Obama's Jan. 25 speech soared highest, it streaked far above Washington's often pointless political skirmishes and spoke directly to the nation's pride. "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be," the President said, "I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth."
Right guard: Reagan fashioned a revolution that was positive and optimistic and found approval among both Republicans and Democrats
New centrist: Chastened by voters in November, Obama is leading his team back toward the middle
Blessed by Weakened Rivals
Historians have noticed that Obama's current situation shares one other similarity with the dark days of the Reagan era: the eroding unity of their opponents. Democrats were splitting in two in the early 1980s, into a labor-backed left and a new group of moderates who wanted to move the party to the center. Today, Obama faces a Republican Party that is struggling to reconcile its traditional, business-friendly wing and the upstart, impatient Tea Party faction. The split is starting to be distracting for the GOP. After Obama's speech, Republicans came back with two responses — one from the party's leadership and one from a junior Congresswoman from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann, under the Tea Party banner. Bachmann said she did not intend "to compete with the official Republican remarks," but that was exactly the effect. "It was problematic and confusing for the Republican Party," says Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for John McCain. When reporters asked McCain about the Bachmann rebuttal, he said with a wink, "It's a free country."
Reagan's fiercest defenders naturally are suspicious about Obama's bromance with Reagan. "He's been trying to unspool everything Reagan stood for," says one old hand. Nor is the Reagan role model something the President can really boast about to his nervous allies on the left. Obama will not take part in the 100th birthday celebration for Reagan at Simi Valley, Calif., in early March, though he may have something to contribute when a black-tie gala is held in Washington later this spring. (See TIME's photo-essay "Ronald Reagan's Fulcrum Year: 1966.")
Obama invited Nancy Reagan to the White House 19 months ago, when he signed legislation creating a commission to plan for her husband's centennial. The meeting was cordial and generous on both sides. Nancy and Michelle Obama had lunch. Nancy, who in her ninth decade retains a healthy sense of humor, didn't miss a chance to point out one difference between Obama and her late husband. "You're a lefty," she said as Obama inked the Reagan commission into law.
"I am a lefty," Obama replied. A lefty who wants to be remembered just like Ronnie.
— With additional reporting by Jay Newton-Small, Katy Steinmetz and Mavis Baah