The Spirit of Reagan Lives On

According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 36 percent of Americans would, if they could pick from a selection of past presidents, want Ronald Reagan to run the country today. Support for Reagan even topped the 29 percent for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who led the United States through the Great Depression and most of World War II.

The result is a bit surprising given that our current economic outlook makes some think “Great Depression,” but there are explanations that help to make sense of it. While some may argue that the absence of historical knowledge or survey methodology may explain the results, I believe there are substantive reasons for the results of this survey.

The first would be that Reagan represented optimism in a time of great pessimism, especially after the malaise of the Carter administration and the multiple recessions of the 1970s.

Though some would deny it today, at the time Reagan’s optimism and humor transcended political lines. Unlike Carter, who chided American consumerism and criticized fundamental assumptions about our way of life, Reagan did not focus on what we were doing wrong as people but rather on what we were doing wrong in government.

Picking Reagan over Roosevelt is more than simply picking a Republican over a Democrat. Rather than being a question of policy — to expand or curtail the size of government — I believe this to be a sign of the times. We would rather be living in the time of Reagan than in the time of Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt was president, we faced the Great Depression, skyrocketing unemployment and persistent uncertainty. We had to go to war against the Nazis and struggled in the Pacific against the Japanese. Comparatively, the Reagan presidency was better. People made money. We talked about tearing down the Berlin Wall and anticipated the end of communism. We were not drafted to fight wars in foreign lands. There was relative peace and there was prosperity. This is what people seek today.

There are some practical implications of this for the 2012 GOP candidates (and perhaps President Obama as well). The GOP candidates are being extremely negative when it comes to the national debt and the economy, perhaps more than they need to be.

I understand their perceived need to paint President Obama and the economy in a negative light to increase their own chances at beating him in 2012. Yet in being so negative, they do not look much better than President Obama, who said on October 3 that he believed that the American people are “not better off than they were … before the financial crisis.” He answered the question that Reagan asked in 1980, the question that ultimately destroyed Carter’s chances at reelection. President Obama did not run away from the bad economy. Rather, he embraced it and is framing himself as the underdog, as the victim of a recession he inherited from President Bush.

The president’s negative attitude leaves the field open for the GOP to take the positive side by arguing that the economy can get back on track by reducing the size of government and lessening the tax burden that the federal government imposes on people and businesses. Doing so would have great impact in encouraging innovation and investment in manufacturing, thus getting Americans back to work.

Rather than painting an inevitably bleak picture that seems more like a negative campaign ad, the Republicans should persistently frame it as though the economy could get back on track if their policies are implemented. In choosing who to emulate, Republicans should focus on being Reagan rather than some sort of talk-radio personality.

People do not want to hear that the apocalypse is coming every day; they want to be told that everything will be alright and that we can persevere. They should acknowledge that there are tough decisions to be made, especially in terms of entitlements, but also avoid lingering on them. Rather than focusing on our shortcomings and on the great tasks remaining before us, the presidential candidates should reassure us that, despite the difficulty, these obstacles can be overcome.

Rather than being negative, rather than being divisive and partisan, rather than making stupid and controversial jokes, the Republican candidates should try to emulate Reagan not just in terms of policy — because policy is only half the battle — but also attitude. That is one place where the current Republican field is lacking. If they want a chance to beat President Obama in 2012, they need to be more optimistic about building a greater future.

There is less of a need to talk about the bleak present because the American people know how bleak the present is; what they do not know is how we are going to fix it.

Tyler Hunt is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at tbhunt@uci.edu.