Among the two or three statements I most regret from a 40-year career in public life was my remark on Meet the Press that President Ronald Reagan's then-new economic policies—aggressive tax cuts, coupled with significantly larger defense spending, leading to an inevitably larger federal deficit—were a "riverboat gamble" whose value to the country could not be known until well after we'd taken it. The result, as we know now but couldn't know then, was the longest economic expansion in American history and the end of the Cold War.
That gamble, risky as it may have been, paid off handsomely. As majority leader of the Senate, I considered it my job to get President Reagan's program enacted, whatever my misgivings, because he had won the election on that economic platform.
Elections have consequences, and flashing forward a generation from the Reagan revolution to the Obama ascendancy, I sense the same kind of seismic shift in our politics and our economic policy. At the 100-day mark of the Obama presidency, I confess I have similar misgivings about the economic policies our new president is pursuing—but also similar hopes that those policies succeed.
My late father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, famously said of federal spending, "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." Now we talk about trillions of dollars for bank bailouts, stimulus packages, healthcare reform, and who knows what else, and it's nothing less than breathtaking. But it may also be necessary, and I admit I have no better plan to offer than the one President Obama has skillfully championed. The president's loyal opposition in the Congress—my fellow Republicans—have an obligation to either propose a comprehensive alternative for America's economic recovery or give the Obama plan a chance. With all respect to my dear friend Nancy Reagan, "Just say no" is not an economic policy—certainly not for times like these.
I remember vividly holding Senate Republicans together through dozens of procedural and substantive votes to enact the Reagan economic plan in 1981, knowing that we couldn't count on many, if any, Democrats to support his policies. President Clinton's economic plan in 1993 was enacted without a single Republican vote. It is not a new thing for presidents to have their most pressing priorities enacted by the slimmest of margins—on the eve of World War II, President Roosevelt's military draft legislation passed by a single vote—but this lack of broad consensus should not deter the president from doing what he thinks is right. I hope he is, but there's no getting around the grave risk of inflation and other serious economic harm that could flow from his policies in the long term, even if they appear to work in the short term. The president has assembled an able team of advisers to counsel him on these matters, and we may have no alternative but to hope for the best in these unprecedented conditions. I believe the American people are doing exactly that, and the president is benefiting from an extraordinary outpouring of good will for a young leader with a beautiful family and a mountain of problems to solve.
President Obama has handled himself very well in his first 100 days. I do wish he did not appear quite so certain about everything, but perhaps that is an essential position for presidents, particularly in times like these. I would urge him, however, to take a page from President Franklin Roosevelt's playbook and encourage experimentation on a smaller scale where possible before committing to national, trillion-dollar solutions whose failure is too scary to conceive. With that caveat, I believe he has the makings of a very fine leader. His obvious intelligence does not stand in the way of seeking advice from others—and taking it. His rhetorical skills are impressive, whether delivering a major address or in more free-form news conferences. His priorities are right, whether or not his solutions are, and his response to external crises has been reassuringly surefooted. Indeed, he has demonstrated a cool and graceful command of his new circumstances that I find positively Reaganesque.
Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee was a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and is of counsel at the law firm Baker Donelson.