President Barack Obama will be the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan, if he wins re-election, writes Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan — a well-respected conservative. Acknowledging that the comparison seems “absurd—even blasphemous,” Sullivan explains that Barack Obama, “will emerge as an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al -Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery.” He adds, “Obama’s potential for Reagan status (maybe minus the airport-naming) is real.”
Obama has been playing a long, strategic game from the very start—a long game that will only truly pay off if he gets eight full years to see it through. That game is not only changing America. It may also bring his opposition, the GOP, back to the center, just as Reagan indelibly moved the Democrats away from the far left.
Reagan won 48 Democratic House and 37 Democratic Senate votes for his first signature policy, the tax cuts; Obama got zero and three Republican votes, respectively, for a stimulus in the worst recession since the 1930s. Those are the fruits of polarization. Nonetheless, the administration has soldiered on since 2010, and the tally of achievements is formidable: the near-obliteration of al Qaeda, democratic revolutions in the Arab world that George Bush could only have dreamed of, the re-regulation of Wall Street after the 2008 crash, stimulus investments in infrastructure and clean energy, powerful new fuel-emission standards along with a record level of independence from foreign oil, and, most critically, health-care reform. Now look at what Obama’s second term could do for all of these achievements. It would mean, first of all, that universal health care in America—government subsidies to people so they can afford to purchase private insurance and a ban on denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions—becomes irreversible. Yes, many details of the law would benefit from reform, experimentation, and fixes—especially if Republicans help to make them. But it’s still the biggest change in American health care since the passage of Medicare in 1965.
An Obama victory would also resolve the three-decade-long battle between taxes and spending initiated by Reagan and intensified by the orgy of spending under George W. Bush and the collapse of revenue during the Great Recession. By Dec. 31 of this year, a deal must be struck or the crudest form of government cuts—sequestration of defense and entitlements—will unfold alongside the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts.
Sullivan, who almost humorously acknowledges he “wore a Reagan ’80 button in high school for the same reason I wore an Obama T-shirt in ’08—not because their politics were the same, but because they were both right about the different challenges each faced, and both dreamed bigger than their rivals in times of real crisis,” concludes:
What I’m describing here is a potential, not a prediction. But imagine a two-term presidency that prevented a second Great Depression, killed bin Laden, decimated al Qaeda, reformed immigration, ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, got a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending, and maybe—just maybe—presided over the democratic revolutions in the Arab world with the skill that the first President Bush showed as new democracies were emerging in Eastern Europe. Much of the groundwork for this has already been laid: health-care reform and Wall Street regulation just need time to be implemented fully. The Arab revolutions are in early formative stages. The economic growth that will only accelerate if Taxmageddon is averted will redound to Obama’s popularity the way it did with Reagan. The potential for a huge payoff if Obama is reelected—from the debt to Iran to jihadism to -immigration—is enormous.
Defeat is the only thing fanatics understand.
The main stumbling block remains the current Republican Party. If the GOP responds to a defeat by lurching even further to the right, Obama will likely fail to match Reagan’s achievements. He needs to persuade a sufficient number of Republicans in the House and Senate that their refusal to compromise on tax revenue at all is partly why they lost, that opposing immigration reform could doom them forever, and that tax reform can be a common and popular bipartisan cause. The GOP has purged so many of its moderates that this may be difficult. But already, as they sense the way the political winds are blowing, some Republican candidates have discovered that a promise to compromise is helping them in their campaigns. When Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party favorite who knocked off Richard Lugar in a primary, says he will “work with anyone” once he is elected, you know the tides may be shifting. Even Tea Party Senate leader, Jim DeMint, has said that if Obama wins, the GOP will have to give some ground on taxes: “We’re not going to save our defense unless we go along with the president’s wishes to raise taxes.” We cannot know what will happen, but there must remain somewhere in the GOP a residual instinct to prefer playing a part in a solution to intensifying the problem for partisan gain—especially with a president they cannot defeat again. But this last gasp of civic responsibility will most likely revive only if the current GOP loses decisively this November. Defeat is the only thing fanatics understand. And defeat is something the remaining Republican moderates can build on. If you are a Republican who wants to see your party return to the center, reelecting Obama is the single most effective thing you can do. Look what Reagan’s success did to the Democrats: it gave us the centrist Bill Clinton. A future centrist Republican president is out there somewhere—but electing Romney-Ryan would strand him or her further out in the wilderness.
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