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Obama Should Beware Reagan Myths

With Obama's staffing changes, it's worth noting that he's been reading and soliciting outside advice. He's signaled he's reviewing Reagan's presidency by reading a biography. But is he getting an accurate picture?
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With all of the coverage of President Obama's staffing changes, it's worth noting that he's also been reading and soliciting outside advice as he prepares for the second half of his term. In particular, he's signaled that he's reviewing Ronald Reagan's presidency by reading a biography of Reagan and meeting with Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former chief of staff. But is Obama getting an accurate picture?

As an example, consider this account of Reagan's presidency from Duberstein, who presumably told Obama something similar (though we don't know for sure):

One way Reagan capitalized on [his] popularity was by focusing on moving public opinion, said Duberstein, who declined to comment on his advice to Obama in their Dec. 10 Oval Office meeting.

"The job of the president is fundamentally to build a consensus in the country in order to build the votes in Washington," said Duberstein, Reagan's chief of staff from 1988-89 and now chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington lobbying firm The Duberstein Group.

In fact, the "Great Communicator" generally wasn't able to move public opinion in support of his ideas. That is a fiction that was created by the media and conservative hagiographers. In his books On Deaf Ears and The Strategic President, the political scientist George Edwards recounts how Reagan's efforts repeatedly failed to increase support for his policy positions.

For instance, here's Reagan himself writing in his memoirs about aid to the Contras (quoted in On Deaf Ears, page 53):

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans...

But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America...and, among those who did care, too few apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.

Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin even wrote a memo to the president soon after his landslide reelection victory advising him against making high-profile speeches. "The president's pollster told him," Edwards writes, "that doing so was likely to lower his approval and generate more public and congressional opposition than support" (53-54).

None of this is surprising to political scientists, but it's not well understood inside the Beltway, where the myth of the bully pulpit still reigns. Obama would learn more by reading Wirthlin's memo instead.

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