Does George W. Bush Compare to Ronald Reagan?

Bush has a lot in common with Reagan, but can’t live up to the Gipper’s TV presence.


George W. Bush has always endured unflattering comparisons with his famous father. He always had trouble living up to his dad's reputation, no matter how hard he tried. Those days are over. Bush rarely mentions his father in his public rhetoric anymore. He is more eager to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan—with considerable justification. "While his name is Bush and his DNA is Bush, his heart belongs to Ronald Reagan," says Ken Duberstein, Reagan's White House chief of staff. "He's Ronald Reagan in that he governs in bold strokes. He is not pastels. He is primary colors. He has a big vision like Ronald Reagan did." Adds Frank Donatelli, Reagan's White House political director: "They share an affection for tax cuts," and they both have a deep belief in the transformational power of individual liberty. Reagan argued that communism "would not survive the imperative of freedom," Donatelli told U.S. News, while Bush argues that freedom will transform Iraq and other repressive societies in the Mideast.

Others question whether the parallels hold up. "It's a false paternity claim," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "Their origins are totally different. Ronald Reagan was not a deep thinker, but he made a long philosophical journey to where he ended up. He really thought about the relationship between citizens and the state. I see no similar intellectual pilgrimage on Bush's part. I see a sense of entitlement."

Parts of both analyses, actually, are correct. Bush may not have arrived in the White House with a fully formed philosophy, as Reagan did, but his instincts for simple answers and black-and-white formulations do parallel the Gipper's. These instincts were intensified by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which forced Bush to take on a mission—winning the war on terrorism—that animated him and has defined his presidency in stark terms.

Last week, Bush praised Reagan for the same traits that he ascribes to himself and that his strategists have made central to his re-election campaign: "the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character." Bush added: "During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt. And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny."

The case for Bush as Reagan's political heir rests on a strong foundation. Both men set a handful of big priorities and tried to move the country in clear directions. Both persuaded Congress to enact massive tax cuts that led to enormous deficits. Both projected American military strength abroad in ways that dismayed their more cautious critics. Both adopted conservative positions on social issues, such as opposing abortion and affirmative action, and made a restoration of "traditional values" a centerpiece of their public lives.

Just as important, where Reagan stood up to communism, Bush is confronting terrorism in a similarly aggressive way. "Bush is stubborn," presidential scholar Robert Dallek told U.S. News. "Reagan was. They have ideas they believe in and don't give up on. Reagan talked about the 'evil empire' [of communism] and Bush talks about the 'axis of evil' [states supporting terrorism]. There is a direct parallel."

Both men also sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. Reagan attacked the growth of the federal government, but he did so in an unthreatening way and put a happy face on the GOP, bringing it to near parity with the Democrats. Bush is likable in his own way and bills himself as a "compassionate conservative," attempting to soften the edges of Reaganism while not breaking from its core principles of tax cuts, a strong military, and self-reliance.

Both were underestimated by opponents, which allowed them to exceed expectations. And both have been optimistic, even Panglossian, in their outlook. Like Reagan, Bush knows that Americans want their president to see the sunny side of life and boost the nation's confidence that its best years are ahead.