ABC The Drum Unleashed

by Tom Switzer

The outpouring of affection for Ronald Reagan, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this weekend, has been fascinating, beyond what one would expect even for one of America's most popular presidents.

On its February 7 cover under the headline "Why Obama ♥ Reagan", Time magazine superimposed a photo of the Republican hero with his arm around the Democratic incumbent.

The breakout: "No, the two never actually met, but we think they would've had a lot to talk about."

In a Gallup poll, Americans rank their 40th president as the greatest, just ahead of Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. The Republicans running for their party's presidential nomination next year – Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Palin, Huckabee – consistently cite Reagan as their role model. And last week distinguished historian Douglas Brinkley said of the two personas: "Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion."

The Americans indulging this past week's tributes to the "Gipper" are doing more than paying respect to someone who left the White House with the highest job approval rating of the modern era. I think they are also telling us something about the current political climate in the US. Americans, put simply, are nostalgic for a better time.

Whatever their ideological and political colours, it is fair to say the American people are in a very foul mood today. They overwhelmingly believe their nation is heading in the wrong direction. Obsessed by immediate problems – skyrocketing national debt, budget deficits, nine per cent unemployment, swelling home foreclosures, a deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan, declining US influence in the Middle East - there is hardly any evidence of that much prized American commodity, vision.

In embracing the Reagan spirit, they want to forget the pessimistic present and regain that sense of national pride and direction that was all too evident during the 1980s.

Intriguingly, the American mindset today is eerily similar to the national mood three decades ago. Recall that Reagan took office in the very shadow of Vietnam, Watergate, economic stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis and Soviet adventurism in the Third World. During the 1980 election campaign, he accused president Jimmy Carter of creating a "crisis in confidence" and perpetuating a "spiritual malaise" and he pledged to restore America's "day in the sun".

He won convincingly.

Newsweek summarised the national mood when it wrote in 1981 that Reagan "inherits the most dangerous economic crisis since Franklin Roosevelt took office" in 1933. The reigning Keynesian-interventionist policy orthodoxy had no answer for this predicament. But together with Paul Volker's Federal Reserve, the administration's free-marketeers helped slay the inflation dragon, kick-start the economy and set the scene for what Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley called "seven fat years" – at that point the longest economic expansion in US peacetime history.

Yes, there were compromises, at times even backsliding, a budget deficit and a whopping national debt, but the course was set. The result: Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, which dominated even the Republican presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, became a historical relic. Reagan had transformed the domestic agenda and, in the process, won a landslide re-election in 1984.

This is why Obama admires Reagan so much. He also wants to be a "transformative" president, albeit along different ideological grounds. As he put it during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries: "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. He tapped into what people were feeling, which is, "We want clarity, we want optimism."

As for foreign policy, Reagan regularly argued that America had a special obligation to promote democracy and freedom to the rest of the world. His policies – defence build-up, Strategic Defence Initiative, Pershing missiles in Western Europe – taken together with his anti-communist rhetoric ("evil empire" and "Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev") meant that far from containing communism, Reagan transcended it, as he indeed pledged he would do in the early '80s.

Within ten months of his leaving office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. As veteran left-liberal columnist Richard Cohen has conceded, Reagan "was right about the Soviet Union – it was the 'evil empire' – and about welfare abuses and the occasional arrogant insularity of Big Government."

But Reagan was also a realist. He believed in carrying a big military stick, but used it only sparingly. Not for him any grand, noble preventive wars or nation building. He confronted the Soviets in Afghanistan and client states in Central America, but only indirectly, through proxies such as the mujahedeen and the Contras.

Like George W Bush, he rebuffed America's European allies (over Nicaragua and Grenada). But unlike Bush 43, he never tarnished transatlantic relationships with dismissive name-calling. He talked tough with the Kremlin, but upon taking office he ended the grain embargo against the Soviets which president Carter had imposed after the Afghanistan invasion. Reagan, too, was prudent enough in his risk taking: in his Lebanon fiasco of 1983 in which more than 270 US marines died, he displayed that rarest of geopolitical skills, the ability to cut losses – something neither Bush nor Obama have done in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.

Today's neoconservatives routinely praise Reagan. But, interestingly, in the 1980s they criticised him over not only "cutting and running" in Lebanon but also "appeasing" the Soviets. When he signed the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Gorbachev in 1987, the response from the Right was overwhelmingly hostile. George Will said it was "moral disarmament", Normal Podhoretz denounced Reagan for "appeasement by any other name." And William F Buckley, Jr's National Review, the leading conservative magazine, headlined a special issue "Nuclear Suicide."

The Senate still ratified the treaty. As liberal critic John Judis conceded: "To Reagan's credit, he saw [Gorbachev's promise of ending the Cold War] almost from the beginning and, in seeing it, encouraged its realisation."Which brings us back to what Obama can learn from Reagan today. Perhaps the Gipper's greatness, as his biographer Lou Cannon has pointed out, was that "he carried a shining vision of America inside him", that nothing was impossible, that America was indeed the Exceptional Nation.

Not only did he radiate warmth and a sunny optimism that reflected the mental makeup of his nation, Reagan refused to become snarled in messy policy detail. He instead explained himself in a simple, coherent, idealist, at times witty, language to which Middle America could easily relate. And so after a decade of cultural crisis he made Americans feel good again about themselves. No wonder Obama has been reading one of Cannon's five biographies of Reagan during the Christmas holidays.

Reagan once said: "What I would really like to do is to go down in history as the President who made Americans believe in themselves again."

By virtually all accounts, Reagan succeeded. Today, however, represents different circumstances. It remains to be seen whether Obama can boost American morale at a time of US decline in an increasingly multi-polar world.