The dustup in recent days among Democratic presidential candidates about Barack Obama’s presidential legacy recalls a dust-up Obama himself started on the subject of presidential legacies before he had one of his own — almost a dozen years ago.
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” candidate Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008, when he was running for the nomination against Hillary Rodham Clinton, “in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
The Clintons, who believed his presidency did indeed make consequential history, understandably took offense. But history has a sense of humor: Obama now finds himself lumped by many fellow Democrats on the 2020 campaign trail in much the same category as Bill Clinton — a satisfactory presidency, even a pretty good one, but with too many disappointments and too much incrementalism to be transformational.
Obama can ponder the irony next time he is landing at the capital’s Reagan airport or giving a speech at the massive Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a few blocks from the White House.
The debate highlights a persistent reality of modern politics. A generation of conservatives recognized that history is an instrument of power, and built a virtual industry dedicated to celebrating Reagan’s legacy and renaming things in his honor.
Democrats, by contrast, during the same time often have become the Hannibal Lecter party — eating their party’s presidential legacies with fava beans and a nice chianti.
“Conservatives see politics as a narrative so they use history to build their narrative,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress. “Democrats and liberal academia spend much more time deconstructing presidential power than building it up. … We should build up, not tear down, the best progressive president of our lifetime, Barack Obama.”
In the days since the most recent round of presidential debates, when Obama’s reputation became collateral damage as candidates took aim at former Vice President Joe Biden, there seems to be a rough consensus among most contenders and liberal commentators in favor of lightening up on the 44th president.
But this appeal in a way highlights the disparity. It is one thing to lay off criticism — quite another to lay on thick the praise and presidential myth-making.
No one under, say, 40 years old would have deep contemporaneous memories of Reagan’s exit from the presidency in January 1989, and even those older have become a bit misty on details.
At the time, his presidency had all the blemishes and contradictions that most chief executives acquire in office — which in his case included the Iran-Contra scandal and big deficits from the supposed fiscal conservative. The Soviet Union had yet to fall; Reagan personally was showing his age. He hardly seemed the outsize figure that even many progressives regard him as.
The effort to defend and promote his record had two distinct engines. One effort was centered around him in California, led by friends, staff and former first lady Nancy Reagan. This was based on the mainstreaming of Reagan, elevating him from a frequently divisive partisan figure into a more unifying historical one.
“We have the conservatives, let’s work on the middle,” was the thinking, explained Fred Ryan Jr., who served as Reagan’s first post-presidential chief of staff and is now chief executive of The Washington Post.
This was effectively a generation-long campaign, using key milestones like the opening of the Reagan library atop a Southern California mountainside in 1991, Reagan’s death in 2004 (with funeral planning a decade in the making) and the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2012. The Reagan library board, chaired by Ryan, over the years has included conservative loyalists like former attorney general Edwin Meese but also luminaries with scant connection to politics, including CEOs of Fortune 500 companies like GE.
The other effort was Washington-based, and much more avowedly ideological. Conservative activist Grover Norquist and fellow travelers aimed to elevate Reagan as a way to elevate their own pro-business, anti-Big Government agenda.
One goal was to name as many things for Reagan or build statues for him in as many places as possible. One of the most prominent was an airport that skeptics noted was already named for a distinguished president: Washington National, just over the Potomac River from the District of Columbia.
“Look, if you have a Reagan Airport you can create 100,000 conversations, “So, Mom, we’re at Reagan Airport. What’s that about with Reagan?’” Norquist said, adding, “If people are naming things, you must be pretty cool.”
The effort, backed by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left many people galled. Reagan had extolled state and local autonomy, and Washington-area governments objected to imposing a new name on an airport ostensibly controlled by a local authority. When the bill renaming the airport in 1998 reached the desk of Clinton, the president who once said Reagan presided over “a decade of greed,” aide Paul Begala walked in the Oval Office with a sign saying “VETO!” Clinton, who was in no mood for what seemed like a purely symbolic fight, smiled and signed it anyway.
Clinton may have assumed someday people would be returning the favor for him. And, in fact, the airport in Little Rock, Ark., in 2012 did get renamed for him and Hillary Clinton.
But there is not a coordinated effort of the sort that assembled to promote the Reagan legacy. For a time, it appeared that Clinton himself would run the effort. The Clinton Global Initiative, with its annual gatherings of heads of state, CEOs, and celebrities in New York, for a time burnished the Clinton legacy, but it disbanded during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who was drafted by Obama to be “explainer in chief” for progressive policies in 2012, so far is a ghost-like figure in 2020 and none of the current candidates is touting their linkages to him. His documented and rumored sexual indiscretions, which he surmounted in the 1990s, have come into a harsher light in the wake of #MeToo.
“Legacies are protean things,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, “and the prism through which we view these presidencies changes depending on the circumstances.”
As “political conditions of the time” change, Riley said, Clinton, Obama, and even Reagan will see their standing rise and fall.
Notably, few Republicans are engaged on a history-buffing project for the Republican president before Donald Trump: George W. Bush. To the contrary, Trump has had sulfurous words for the 43rd president; Bush has largely avoided contemporary political disputes, apparently believing that the time-passing phenomenon noted by Riley will in due course lift his reputation.
In general, presidential reputations get vaulted into favorable territory one of two ways. One is on the basis of personal character and biography. This was the variety of hagiography that lifted George H.W. Bush, though never beloved by conservatives, at the time of his death last year.
The other is by seeing the person as an apostle of broader sociological or ideological change. This was the point Obama himself was making back in 2008 about Reagan. If his own historical stock rises, it will be because scholars and partisan activists come to see him and his achievements as the vanguard of a larger historical movement.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking to POLITICO reporters and editors during a newsroom visit Monday, said he gives Obama credit for such achievements as the Affordable Care Act but said: “We have to go a lot further.” Progressives are feeling the sting of “missed opportunities” not only by Obama but other Democrats of recent decades.
On the other side, de Blasio said: “I think Reagan was a singular figure. Much as I disagree with him profoundly, I will give him [credit for a] tremendous sense of how to use that bully pulpit. And he did spark foundational change — from my point of view in the wrong direction — but it was foundational. … I think there is something objective about that fact. I don’t like what he did, but it had a much bigger impact than just what he did in his eight years.”