During the 2008 Democratic primaries, then-Sen. Barack Obama caused a stir when he said, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Pundits speculated whether the optimistic, charismatic Obama could move the nation’s politics to the left in a way comparable to how President Reagan had moved the country to the right. This comparison took hold early in the Obama presidency as his approval ratings nosedived in a pattern similar to Reagan’s. The problem now for Democrats is that, though both presidents took office with a weak economy, Reagan’s pro-growth policies worked, while Obama’s big government agenda is failing.
The numbers tell the story. The Commerce Department reported recently that the U.S. economy grew at an anemic 1.8 percent rate during the first quarter of 2011, more evidence that the Obama recovery has been tepid, at best. At a comparable point in Reagan’s presidency, the shaky economy he inherited was headed to a robust recovery, with gross domestic product surging by 5.1 percent in the first quarter of 1983. For the rest of 1983, the economy grew at a 4.5 percent rate, then leaped 7.2 percent in 1984, as Reagan won a landslide re-election. Today, the Federal Reserve Board projects GDP growth of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent in 2011, and 3.5 percent to 4.2 percent in 2012. Note, too, that Reagan took office after a year of 13.5 percent inflation, but by 1984, it was 4.3 percent.
The contrasts between Obama and Reagan couldn’t be starker. Reagan signed the biggest tax cut in history, removed burdensome regulations on businesses, and began to release the nation from the choke hold of labor unions, as exemplified by his firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Obama has pursued the opposite course, opening with an $862 billion economic stimulus package even though similar policies proved ineffective during America’s Great Depression in the 1930s and Japan’s lost decade in the 1990s. He spent more than a year pushing for his government takeover of the health care system, legislation that included $813 billion in tax increases in addition to a raft of new regulations on businesses.
His response to the financial crisis was to create burdensome new layers of regulatory bureaucracy. On energy policy, he’s smothered domestic oil and gas exploration at a time of skyrocketing gas prices and unleashed the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate every corner of the economy by capping carbon emissions. And he’s allowed his union cronies to run amok in the Labor Department and on the National Labor Relations Board. There is one way Obama is like Reagan — he’s moved the country decidedly to the right by vividly reminding Americans of the destructiveness of liberal policies.