This time about 12 years from now, President Tagg Romney will, with a mixture of exasperation and amusement, begin signing into law an unending series of symbolic measures: the legislation renaming post offices, airports, federal buildings, parks, warships, overseas bases, drone flotillas, and more after the sainted former President Barack Obama.
Obama’s partisans would have made a case for his greatness even if he had only been a one-term president: the symbolism of his race, the era-ending slaying of bin Laden, the sweep of health care legislation, the success in avoiding the abyss of the financial crisis. But there would have been a good case, too, for treating him as an interesting footnote of a president: He cleaned up George W. Bush’s messes, but went too far. The Affordable Care Act was a bit of an overreach, swiftly repealed; the recovery credited to President Romney.
Now we are in Reagan territory, and in the hall of statues in the American imagination, that includes, this century, probably only FDR and maybe JFK and Teddy besides. Obama’s best interpreter, Andrew Sullivan, made that case last fall: “If Obama wins, to put it bluntly, he will become the Democrats’ Reagan. The narrative writes itself. He will emerge as an iconic figure who struggled through a recession and a terrorized world, reshaping the economy within it, passing universal health care, strafing the ranks of al -Qaeda, presiding over a civil-rights revolution, and then enjoying the fruits of the recovery.”
Sullivan predicts, “Reagan status (maybe minus the airport-naming).” Actually, Midway, named for the Pacific battle, is pretty much waiting for a presidential name to be attached.
The soaring rhetoric of inauguration provokes, in many political writers and analysts, the understandable temptation to puncture the rhetorical balloon at its most inflated. For some conservatives, that means noting Obama’s relative unpopularity; for others, it means simply declaring his victories hollow.
But you can also feel the way the country’s imagination is turning, and see Republican pragmatists begin to reposition themselves around it. Matthew Continetti, a talented conservative reporter-turned-polemicist, didn’t hide his distaste about echoing Sullivan in the Free Beacon last week.
“We ought to face the unpleasant fact that Obama will be remembered as a president of achievement and consequence,” he wrote. “It does not matter if, like I do, you think those achievements are horrible and that their consequences will be worse. Obama’s reversal of the Reagan revolution is here.”
Continetti urged Republicans to reconcile themselves to this reality:
“The generation of conservatives and Republicans who return one day to power will be forced to reckon with the consequences of the Obama revolution, just as a generation of defeated liberals were forced to confront and in some cases accept the revolution of Ronald Reagan.”
Presidential greatness in the terms of American politics isn’t synonymous with universal acceptance. It has to do with a pragmatic decision by party leaders and publicists — to the great frustration of their historians and ideologues — to soften and embrace the legacy of a hated enemy. So Franklin Roosevelt becomes, to Republicans who saw him as a tyrant, a strong leader in war who struggled against disability and, perhaps, saved capitalism to fight another day. Reagan, to the Democrats who loathed him (I remember images of him with red eyes and horns plastered all over New York’s Upper West Side when I was growing up), becomes a corrective to the party’s weakness and its overreach, a kind of teachable moment and a sweet, grandfatherly figure.
These new interpretations of once divisive figures produce understandable hysteria among people in both parties who are concerned with consistency and memory. And there remain pockets of resistance: The anti-government politics of the Koch brothers has its roots in the opposition to the warmongering tyrant Roosevelt. The taste of the racially charged 1980s battles over welfare lingers in the mouths of many a Democratic activist; many others grew up hating him for his support for the Contras.
But at some point it stops making political sense to fight those old fights, and begins making political sense to coopt and soften an old enemy. In the 2008 campaign, Obama scandalized Democrats with warm words for Reagan, particularly surprising from a man who wasn’t from his party’s New Democratic wing but had come up on a left shaped by hatred of the Republican icon.
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like with all the excesses of the ’60s and the ’70s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think 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 entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
This drew a furious rejoinder from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who accused Obama, accurately but perhaps missing the point, of rewriting history.
That kind of rewriting is exactly how parties reckon with defeat. Liberal Democrats had once sought to preserve Roosevelt as a hero of big government. Now Republicans try, equally in vain (and with equal legitimacy) to preserve Reagan solely as a hero of conservatism. By the 2012 primaries, Democrats made an effective mockery of that, leaping on suggestions that the party had drifted far to Reagan’s right and in a way claiming Reagan as an icon of the center.
The early attempts to name things, like a Maryland school, after Barack Obama came across as a bit cultish and awkwardly premature, the way his Nobel Prize had been. As long as the president can avoid a Nixonian exit, Obama’s friends and enemies had better brace themselves for a new round.
“No memorial in your county?” asks Grover Norquist’s Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which is well on its way to a goal of more than 3,000 Reagan airports, highways, and other increasingly uncontroversial memorials. That’s where this president is headed. Soon enough, liberal Democrats who saw him as the president of drones and compromises will have to bite their tongues or be forced to the grumbling margins; and soon enough, Republicans will be accusing Democratic politicians of straying from Obama’s fondly remembered centrism.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced Obama with a cleverly layered decision to quote from Roots author and Malcolm X autobiography co-author Alex Haley. And with Haley’s motto, he offered fellow Republicans a road map for a process of memory and forgetting that will probably wait another four years to begin.
“Find the good,” Alexander advised, “and praise it.”