Can Obama Be to Democrats What Reagan Is to Republicans?

As I watched Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I couldn't help thinking of Ronald Reagan and what he has meant to conservatives since the day 32 years ago when he delivered his first inaugural address and said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Some have lamented the fact that no single line from Obama's speech stands to be repeated as often as that one. But could this speech, and the four years to follow, make Barack Obama into the Democrats' Reagan?

I don't necessarily mean that Obama will be treated with the kind of creepy fetishism Republicans treat Reagan. But the question is whether, like Reagan, Obama can define an era that continues even after he leaves office (in many ways, the Age of Reagan didn't end until January 2009), and give succor and guidance to his followers for years and even decades.

Just think about Reagan's first inaugural and how it persisted in the conservative imagination. He may have said government was the problem, but Reagan didn't succeed in dismantling the welfare state or reducing government's size. He decried the deficit in both his first and second inaugural addresses, yet under his presidency it rose to new heights. Nevertheless, Reagan's spirited defense of conservatism remains a touchstone for Republicans at every level, from presidential candidates down to the lowliest town councilman. He taught Republicans how to talk about their ideology in a way that was understandable, unapologetic, and persuasive.

And that's what was inspiring about Obama's speech yesterday. The line that has gotten the most attention is the one about the truth of equality that "guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," but this was the paragraph that summed up the the speech and progressivism as Obama sees it:

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.

That wasn't all; there was also a defense of the social-safety net and an explicit rejection of the philosophy espoused by the party he defeated two and a half months ago ("The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."). This was not the first time Obama has offered a spirited defense of the progressive vision of government, but it may have been the one with the biggest audience. He did not repeat the one-sentence summation of progressivism he has in the past—"We're all in this together"—but the same message, one as simple and unambiguous as "Government is the problem," was nevertheless clear.

So can Obama become that touchstone for Democrats? Twenty years from now, will candidates for state representative in far-flung corners of the country get up before audiences and say, "I believe what Barack Obama believed..."? Part of the answer is that they will if his presidency is seen as a success. Just as George W. Bush went from demigod to persona non grata among conservatives after a disastrous second term, much will depend on results. But Bill Clinton was a successful president, and his legacy is too complicated to unite Democrats. Indeed, the most memorable phrase from a Clinton speech—"The era of big government is over," spoken in his 1996 State of the Union—was a rebuke to liberalism and a triumph for Reaganism. So what will be required of Obama is both practical success and four more years of ideological clarity and clarion calls. He can do it, if he chooses.

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