Built to Last? How Obama’s Legacy Will Differ From Reagan's

Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is “time telling”; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is “clock building.”

In “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” author James C. Collins carefully researches and identifies what makes so-called “visionary companies” enduringly great. It takes more than just good leadership or even good ideas, Collins, finds: it takes internal building of a core value system that will outlive the company’s conception.

Political administrations in America are not so different, as visionary leaders often ascend to the presidency by inspiring the masses with bright ideas for their nation, something Collins calls “time-telling.” In both the private and public sector, though, it takes more than charisma and policy proposals to create lasting change. It takes “clock-building” to make long-term impact.

The success of a President, then, can best be understood and put to the test after their time is office is over. As President Obama exits the Oval Office after eight years in power, his test has just begun. The question isn’t whether or not he was a good president, but whether or not his administration was built to last. Will his actions in office meaningfully transform liberalism, or have lasting impact on America as a whole?

When examining Barack Obama, I can’t help but be reminded of another charismatic leader: Ronald Reagan. Despite being ideological opposites, Obama and Reagan share notable commonalities. Both were extremely well-liked politicians that won by a landslide in their respective elections thanks to devoted supporters (Reagan’s landslides were bigger, but both were landslides by any reasonable definition of the term). Both were great orators that knew how to inspire crowds, and both had very high approval ratings upon leaving office.

Ronald Reagan’s legacy hardly needs stating; he a key founder of modern conservatism as we know it. The commonly held notion that less government is healthy for our nation was planted by Reagan and continues to be at the heart of conservatism, alongside his economic philosophy of lower taxes and less regulation (also known as Reaganomics) and the virtues of the free market. His smart, effective rhetoric seeped into the core of deeply held American values, and his legislation has had lasting impact.

We can’t say exactly what mark Obama will leave on America, but some immediate comparisons can be drawn—not all of which bode well for Obama’s legacy.

Transformative power

Though we’ve had decades to realize Reagan’s lasting impact on America, there is no denying that he was transformative quickly. In other words, the America Reagan took office in was profoundly different than the America he left behind as a direct result of his actions.

The Reagan administration changed the conversation surrounding government entirely, and taxation especially. When he came into office, the top income tax rate was whopping 70 percent, which he brought down to 28 percent by 1986. He absorbed moderates into the conservative party that led to a huge philosophical shift away from FDR’s pro-government New Deal. He branded small government in a way that was truly embraced, for conservatives and so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ too.

Obama was not able to do the same for liberalism; that is, make people believe in the power of government in a way that challenges Reagan’s philosophy or win substantial support across the aisle. The roll out of Obamacare was a big opportunity to change hearts and minds, but its botched execution and implementation only solidified the conservative notion that big government can’t do much well without making things worse for the American people.

Legislative Impact

We can also look to both Reagan and Obama’s accomplishments in terms of legislation to understand whether these men were simply “time-telling,” as Collins asserts more charismatic leaders in the private sector are, or “clock-building” for a successful future.

Obama was almost certainly a time-teller, because he made things happen that seemed impactful in the moment. But was he clock-building? Probably not in the same way Reagan was.

You see, the most impactful Reagan policies were legislated with the approval of Congress, whereas many of Obama’s came by executive order. Executive orders are much more easily erased by subsequent presidents. Case in point: Obama himself reversed eight executive orders his first month in office, a record amount. President Trump has pledged to do the same to Obama, who made 275 in total.

Though Obama actually made fewer executive orders than Reagan overall, there is a reason the latter is known as an artist of compromise. Formerly a Democrat, Reagan worked across the aisle in a manner rarely seen since. He succeeded, as an example, in working with a Democratic Congress to pass comprehensive immigration and tax reform. This is the type of legislation that really sticks.

While Democrats like Bill Clinton were able to work across the aisle in a similar fashion, Obama was less adept. And so some of his landmark acts on healthcare, education, trade, guns, and climate change, which bypassed Congress, are far from guaranteed the staying power he’d hope for.

Lingering perception


This leaves us with perception, an important part of both success and legacy. How is Reagan remembered? And how will Obama be remembered?

It’s hard to know who history will be kind to in the long run. Though not without his critics, Reagan’s reputation certainly retained its glow. There is a reason Reagan was called the “Teflon President” — even his enemies liked him. His natural humor and warmth created a remarkable bond with the American people, and historians attest that nothing bad seemed to stick to him.

Obama is likable to Democrats, and governed largely without scandal, an impressive enough feat. But he is not likable across the aisle or in some cases, the ocean. And those that do like Obama like him more for who he is — the first African American president — rather than what he’s done.

One reason for this is the heated and divisive political climate, which Obama has done little to improve (in fact, it’s gotten worse). Another reason may be a difference in representation. Reagan was unapologetically conservative; he embraced his conservatism even as he negotiated with the other side. Adversely, Obama was perceived to be hiding his liberalism, careful not to show just how left-leaning he was.

Looking forward

Will Barack Obama be a clock-builder like Reagan? Though it’s impossible to say for certain, he’s not off to the best start, especially considering the Republican party is stronger now than it has been since 1928. Whether by his own doing or not, Obama emboldened his opposition, creating a path for Trump to succeed him and reverse his “progress.”  

Though he will undeniably remain a notable figure historically, ultimately Obama did not build enduring, transformative legislation in the way that Reagan did. But it’s worth keeping in mind that while Obama’s failure has strengthened Republican control, it may have also signaled a shift away from Reagan’s party as we know it. This change is marked by the victory of Donald Trump, a starkly different kind of conservative.

As Collins writes, “if there is any one ‘secret’ to an enduring great company, it is the ability to manage continuity and change—a discipline that must be consciously practiced, even by the most visionary of companies.”

Applied to politics, we can conclude that no administration or political party, however visionary, is built to last forever as-is; the Republican party will continue to ebb and flow as the times demand. Even so, I’m confident Reagan’s legacy will persist at the very least as a model for effective leadership. Not many Presidents will live up to his teflon clock, but plenty will march to its mighty tick.

As for the Democrats? We’ll see if they can escape the time-telling stagnation of the Obama administration come 2020.

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