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Obama, Liberals, And Reagan

Via Matt Stoller, Barack Obama has some nice things to say about Ronald Reagan:

Matt is none too pleased:

There are many reason progressives should admire Ronald Reagan, politically speaking.  He realigned the country around his vision, he brought into power a new movement that created conservative change, and he was an extremely skilled politician.  But that is not why Obama admires Reagan.  Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable.

Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement.  The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses'.

Or maybe Obama has in mind the actual excesses that led large majorities of Americans to back Reagan: runaway inflation, confiscatory marginal tax rates, an urban crime epidemic, a seemingly impotent foreign policy. The difficulty here is that while there were clearly some pernicious attitudes among voters that helped Reagan build his coalition, there were also legitimate ones. It's not clear to me what Democrats gain from denying that reality and telling blue-collar voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania that they're intolerant morons who were duped by an actor's smile. If Democrats ever hope to get fifty percent of the vote, let alone build a working majority, they'll have to win the support of a lot of people who admired Ronald Reagan. The move Obama is attempting seems like the right way to go: recognize that many of the grievances that led to Reagan's election were real ones, but then pivot to note that even as the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction Republicans are offering the same old solutions as though it were still 1979.

Update: Others seem to be under the impression that Obama wasn't actually endorsing anything substantive about Reagan--he was just saying that he liked Reagan's leadership style and willingness to aggressively push an agenda. I don't think this interpretation squares with what Obama said:

He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.  I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.  I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling...

It's true Obama says only that people were feeling that way, not necessarily that they were right. But one imagines that if he thought the prevailing attitude had been wrong, he would have said so.

--Josh Patashnik