John A. Tures: Obama's Reagan relapse

May 24, 2013 

Barack Obama is a lot more like Ronald Reagan than most people realize. Both followed a president with low approval ratings. Both suffered the aftereffects of a recession, and had their respective parties suffer in mid-term elections. Both were reelected (though Reagan's victory was much bigger). Both have high likability ratings.

And a "hands-off" managerial style came back to haunt both in their second terms.

Barack Obama is suffering from scandals ranging from the Benghazi consular office in Libya to the IRS special scrutiny of Tea Party and Patriot groups, and the investigation of leaks through surveillance of Associated Press reporters.

All resemble Ronald Reagan in his second term, in the nadir of the Iran-Contra scandal. There, Reagan's subordinates directly violated not only the president's public statements vowing not to negotiate with terrorists, but also congressional laws about aiding Nicaraguan rebels. Either Reagan was directly involved in illegal activity, or he was asleep at the switch. Neither was a good option.

It led to a humorous "Saturday Night Live" sketch, which showed Phil Hartman playing Reagan as a mastermind of international intrigue related to the scandal. It was funny because we had all concluded that Reagan was simply out of touch.

Similar charges are being leveled at Barack Obama. The Associated Press called him "the passive president." The GOP harped on this theme: "If Obama really learned about the latest IRS and AP secret subpoena scandals in the news, who exactly is running the ship at the White House?" asked Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski in a Yahoo News story.

Will the "asleep at the switch" Obama suffer at the polls? If Reagan's experience is any indicator, the answer is yes, even though initial reports claim otherwise. Reagan's approval ratings, which began in the 60 percent range, had fallen to 36 percent, but recovered to nearly 65 percent going into his second term.

When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, the original "passive president" fell nearly 20 percentage points. His approval rating did not recover until the very end of his presidency, with some nuclear weapons agreements with the USSR and Mikhail Gorbachev (which were actually more appealing to Democrats than to his own political party).

President Obama's weakness is that he has been acting like a legislator-in-chief, when the job description calls for executive management of government. President Reagan doesn't have the same excuse, given that he served a pair of terms as California governor. But Reagan became an aggressive proponent for conservative legislation, leaving his subordinates and bureaucrats to run the show. And his administration faced some damaging hearings and an independent counsel investigation as a result.

At any rate, Obama had better start acting "presidential" and leave the legislating to allies and bipartisan groups in Congress, or he may face worse than simply lower approval ratings.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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