Is Barack Obama the Next Ronald Reagan?

He may just be. Whether it's the transformation Americans actually want is another question.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Last January, then-candidate Barack Obama caused quite a stir among his fellow Democrats when he defended remarks he'd made to the Reno, Nev. Gazette-Journal:

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 put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know, government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into—he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.

During the South Carolina debate a few weeks later, Hillary Clinton went after him for admiring Reagan—so Obama clarified his statement, noting that "Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda—an agenda that I objected to."

I was at the Reagan Library last weekend, and I was thinking about this very question: Is Barack Obama going to be the kind of transformative figure that Ronald Reagan was?

Apparently I'm not the only one thinking about this. Lou Cannon, the famous Reagan biographer, has been writing a blog for the New York Times during Obama's first 100 days, and he remembers this nugget from Reagan's first few days in office:

As it was, economic recovery became the exclusive early Reagan agenda. The president was further encouraged by a detailed private memo from Richard Nixon, then too much of a pariah to appear in public with Republican office holders. Reagan valued the former president's experience, particularly on foreign policy, but the memo instead urged him to focus on economic policy for at least the first six months. "Unless you are able to shape up our home base it will be almost impossible to conduct an effective foreign policy," Nixon wrote. Reagan was so impressed that he quoted the opening portion of Nixon's memo to a friend and added: "If we get the economy in shape, we're going to be able to do a lot of things. If we don't, we're not going to be able to do anything."

History repeats itself: Charles Krauthammer writes today that the "sideshows" of the credit crisis and the automakers bailout are issues that Obama must first deal with in order not to sink the economy and cost him public support before he gets to push through his real agenda, which is his restructuring of healthcare, education, and energy. "Out of these," writes Krauthammer, "will come a radical extension of the welfare state; social and economic leveling in the name of fairness; and a massive increase in the size, scope, and reach of government." That's transformative, all right, but is it the kind of transformation the American people want?

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