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Obama Lacks Reagan's Audacity

By Blake D. Dvorak

We've endured many Ronald Reagan comparisons so far this election season. Now, with Republicans having exhausted their search for the next Gipper, Democrats are in the process of finding their own. The mantle has settled on Barack Obama. As with previous comparisons, this one fails on many fronts, but we should credit Obama himself for acknowledging where the connection has some merit.

To the Reno-Journal Gazette in January, Obama said: "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. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it ... he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Yes, Obama greatly generalized Reagan's achievement to suit his own ends, but let's admit that, stripped of all ideological luster, this is in a way what Reagan did. And it's what Obama is trying to do, again in a way: Selling optimism of a uniquely Reagan variety -"our best days are in front of us." It should come as no surprise that when he matches that optimism with his vast rhetorical gifts, Obama, a la Reagan, is attracting Independents and historic amounts of younger voters. There is also a smattering of Republicans rallying to his banner, but we won't know until the fall whether Obama can achieve Reagan-like defections.

What's missing from Obama's narrative is how Reagan "changed the trajectory of America." It took a little more than a good speech full of optimism. It took, say, a little audacity -- the sort that Obama has yet to exhibit. Nothing more clearly demonstrates this than Obama's aversion to labels. To pin a label on him - say, the liberal label - Obama calls the "okey doke," which refers to that partisan style of politics Obama is campaigning to change. "Don't let them [i.e Republicans] run that 'okey doke' on you," he recently told a Texas audience. Labels confine, and the man who would transcend politics won't consent to such limits.

Fair enough, but it's worthwhile to point out that the other half of Reagan's success was that he embraced what he was. As an unapologetic advocate of conservatism, Reagan's 1980 election is remembered more as a victory of conservatism over the old guard than as one party defeating another. Reaganism realigned the center of American politics in a considerably rightward fashion. He didn't do this by avoiding the conservative label -- not exactly in vogue in the late 1970s -- and running as a bipartisan uniter. Had Reagan tried to do this, he either would have withered beneath the media's unrelenting spotlight or his presidency wouldn't have been of much consequence. Reagan's response to the charge of being a conservative was "Yes, I am. And here's why you should be, too."

Obama's response to the charge of being a liberal, however, is "Don't play that 'okey-doke' on me." At Tuesday's debate, when the charge did come up in relation to the National Journal's ranking of him as the most liberal senator, Obama recoiled. "It turned out," he said, swiftly sidestepping the honor, "that Senator Clinton and I had differences on two votes." That's true, but misleading. The National Journal weighted votes differently, which explains how Obama could be rated first and Clinton sixteenth.

It's also beside the point. Obama can reject whatever label he wants, but not all labels are the sole property of the individual. A liberal is someone who advocates liberalism and the National Journal, a non-partisan outfit, judged Obama as the Senate's most consistent advocate of liberalism. Obama's defense, stated at the debate, that he couldn't possibly be the most liberal senator because he is attracting both Independents and Republicans equally misses the mark. Was Reagan any less of a conservative because he convinced Democrats to vote for him?

It turns out that Obama is also playing a bit of "okey-doke" himself here. There is one label Obama has embraced: "I am a progressive," he recently declared. But this is a distinction without substance. "Progressive" is the Left's response to the success conservatives have had, going back to Reagan, in sullying the good name of liberals. In that way, to call oneself a progressive is rather sheepish. But for those in the know, "progressive" is a wink to the far-left netroots, who claim to be leading a new "progressive" movement, that he's one of them. So Obama's rejection of the word liberal is ultimately an argument over synonyms.

What's curious about all this is why Obama, who is very much proposing a liberal platform, doesn't have the audacity to say so. He speaks of change, but asks voters to accept his argument that universal health care, tax increases, adherence to international governing bodies, and more regulation on trade and industry are all mutually exclusive ideas. A far more believable argument would be to say that they are the result of his liberal ideology. But to do so would infect his campaign with a bit too much partisanship.

At least on this score, Obama's political instincts are sound. It is, for instance, mostly true that an outspoken liberal advancing a thoroughly liberal agenda would have a hard time winning the White House. The same could be said of a committed conservative these days, which is why a Republican like John McCain is well positioned for the general election. But there is little in Obama's record that speaks of moderation, and so his pitch to voters to bring about bipartisan change is also a bit of a ruse masking behind lofty rhetoric.

This unwillingness to correctly identify the kind of change he is really advocating is one of Obama's biggest weaknesses going into the general election. His efforts to sell liberalism without calling it such will allow Republicans to define it for him. For all of Obama's audacity, he has balked at the one truly audacious thing he could do: Revive the liberal label and carry it into the White House. That's what Reagan did with conservatism and that's how he changed the trajectory of American politics.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

(c) 2008 RealClearPolitics. All rights reserved.

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