Ronald Reagan was always a popular president. When he took office in 1981, he promised change — an historic shift away from the policies that had left America subject to the upheaval of the 60s and 70s. More importantly, his charismatic personality naturally endeared him to Americans. He looked great on camera. His speeches were touching sermons on God, nationalism, and America’s “destiny.” He was often referred to as the “Teflon” president due to his ability to seemingly deflect any blame or bad press by sunny disposition alone.
Of course, while Reagan was blitzing the American people with PR stunts, his administration was rolling out some of the most devastating legislation of the era — from the counterproductive escalation of the War on Drugs to the trickle down economic policies that continue to hollow out the American middle class. Yet for whatever reason, this never really seemed to matter. His persona had already wedged him firmly into the hearts of conservatives forever.
Today, Reagan has become more legend than man in conservative circles. He is credited with the economic booms of the ’90s, absolved of his negotiations with terrorists and generally held up as an icon of all things good on the Right. Asked which living president is their favorite, current Republican candidates struggle not to say Reagan, who has been dead for eleven years. If Reagan and Jesus ran in a Republican primary, they’d both lose to Ted Cruz, who would be considered the most Reaganesque.
There are a number of striking, worrisome parallels between Reagan and our current president, Barack Obama. If Obama has — in theory — been on the opposite ideological side of the fence of his predecessor, his model of political leadership seems quite similar. That is, he’s quite good at the press-kits and the rhetoric; he’s maybe not so great at actually fulfilling the ideals he so often preaches. When first elected, Obama (like Reagan) proffered the carrot of radical change — promising to end the belligerent warmongering and corruption of the Bush administration, and to transform American society for the better. These promises, of course, were never fulfilled.
Yet progressives and liberals love him just the same. And much of that adoration comes, I suspect, from his skillful manipulation of the media, and his practiced public relations campaigns. Indeed, it makes me a little sad to see how many millennials seem to blindly champion the president because they saw him on Between Two Ferns, or because he did that cute “Thanks, Obama” video on Buzzfeed, or because he merely mentioned that he “supports gay marriage.” In the business, they call that propaganda — a means of engendering your goodwill without actually doing the work. And our president is quite good at it. So good, in fact, that in 2008 he even won the Marketer of the Year award from PR industry giant Advertising Age, beating out Apple.
Yet if we look past the president’s speeches and printed opinions, Obama’s actions rarely match his rhetoric — and they certainly don’t conform to any rubric of progressivism. Let’s take his human-rights policies, for example. On Human Rights Day, Obama made a statement about how America “was founded on the idea that all people are endowed with inalienable rights, and that principle has allowed us to work to perfect our union at home while standing as a beacon of hope to the world.” Yet contrary to this idea, many of Obama’s foreign policy decisions have exacerbated human rights atrocities, not curbed them. As of 2014, his ever-expanding drone program is responsible for the deaths of somewhere between “168 to 200” children, to say nothing of the hundreds of other civilians killed during the current presidency. Similarly, Obama’s unyielding support for Israel has allowed for untold atrocities in Gaza to go unpunished. He’s been credited with exacerbating tensions with Russia and pushing us into a new Cold War. Other critics claim Obama’s foreign policy helped aid the rise of ISIS in Syria. Somewhere deep down, the President must find it deeply ironic that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before taking office, only to become the hawkish pioneer in a new brand of warfare where the line between the bad guys and civilians is vague and the attacks are indiscriminate.
Similarly, Obama has often paid lip-service to the needs of the middle-class while twisting the knife in their backs at every turn. The 2008 bank bailout, which he endorsed, has made the very criminal organizations that crashed the national economy more powerful than ever before. What little of the subsequent Dodd-Frank reform bill that has been implemented has proven ineffective. In 2010, he personally extended the Bush tax-cuts, which awarded “a quarter of the tax savings…to the wealthiest one percent of the population” while “the only group that..[saw] its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers” (at the time, Obama said the tax cuts were “a substantial victory for middle-class families across the country”). In 2012, he shoved through his JOBs bill — which criminologist and former fraud prevention expert William K. Black said was essentially ghost written by Wall Street as a means of weakening market regulations. And now Obama’s secrecy-shrouded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement has many progressive activists saying that the deal will kill jobs in America while empowering a small plutocratic elite, whose sovereignty will be protected from U.S. law by secretive international tribunals.
Of course, it hasn’t been all bad with Barack (the Affordable Care Act, as flawed, and as poorly rolled out as it was, is sure to be a significant help for millions of Americans); but it wasn’t all bad with Reagan either. Just mostly bad.
It is important to acknowledge that Obama–like Reagan–has often earned the adoration of the public while playing to the interests of the private elite. This criticism isn’t about simply being anti-Obama; it’s about having clarity on what we really want from the leader of the free world. It’s about understanding that when we vote with our feelings instead of our critical faculties, we surely leave ourselves open to manipulation. We voted for Obama because he was a symbol of change — not because he had a long track record of actually achieving it.
Now we have another presidential election on our hands and, yet again, another symbol of change. Hillary Clinton could very well be the first woman president. Historic, yes. Yet once we get beyond this awe-evincing fact, we’ll be faced with the reality that she’s just another politician tasked with leading our country. The president we need right now is going to be supportive of the 99% in this time of economic inequality at home and wayward foreign policy abroad. It’s not very hard to see that Hillary isn’t that leader. She may tell us what we want to hear; she may be a historic president, even. But any minor perusal of OpenSecrets will show you who her real friends are when the cameras are off and the reporters have all gone home.
I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t us.