Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 9:44 pm | Fair 56º


Mark Shields: Could Obama be Another Reagan?

In just seven weeks, Obama has lifted the spirits of a downtrodden nation

Political adversaries of Ronald Reagan were constantly making jokes at his expense. Addressing the question of the then-65-year-old Reagan’s full head of thick hair — without even a trace of gray — President Gerald R. Ford quipped during the extended 1976 primary campaign between the two men, “Ronald Reagan doesn’t dye his hair; it’s just prematurely orange.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Actor-comedian Robin Williams was not alone in suggesting that Reagan’s wife was the more forcefully decisive partner between the two Reagans: “I still think Nancy does most of his talking; you’ll notice that she never drinks water while Ronnie is speaking.”

The funniest thing of all is that nobody seemed to enjoy those Reagan jokes more than did President Ronald Reagan himself, who likeably laughed his way to two landslide White House victories, first carrying 44 of the 50 states in 1980 and then 49 of the 50 in his 1984 re-election.

To understand Reagan’s appeal to American voters, you just had to know the answer to a single question, asked during his presidency by the Washington Post-ABC News poll: “Which of these statements comes closest to your opinion: A) I like Ronald Reagan personally and approve of most of his policies. B) I like Reagan personally, but I disapprove of most of his policies. C) I don’t like Reagan personally, but I approve of most of his policies. D) I don’t like Reagan personally, and I disapprove of most of his policies.”

The results for this question were remarkably consistent throughout the early 1980s (when it must be remembered the nation was enduring double-digit unemployment rates): Only one out of 10 respondents said they disliked Reagan but approved of his policies (Statement D). About two out of 10 answered that they found Reagan personally unlikable while they also disapproved of his policies (Statement C).

The remaining seven out of 10 voters said they liked Reagan personally, with four of them approving of most of the Reagan policies and the other three disapproving of those policies. Reagan, much to the frustration of Democrats, was significantly more popular than were his policies.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, President Obama shows a personal appeal with voters reminiscent of Reagan’s. Confronting an uninterrupted economic crisis at home and around the globe, Obama in his first seven weeks in office has expended enormous political capital — passing a historic economic stimulus bill, proposing a budget of monumental change, advocating national health care, authoring a housing rescue plan and producing a plan to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

And yet today 68 percent of his fellow citizens — an all-time high — have a favorable opinion of him, with just 19 percent expressing negative feelings toward him.

In the respected judgment of Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who along with Republican Bill McInturff, conducts the survey, “These numbers (for Obama) are just phenomenal.” Beyond the high personal ratings he earns, Obama, according to Hart, “has done the nearly impossible — by lifting the spirits and brightening the mood of the nation.”

The change in that mood is almost magical: In late October in the Journal-NBC poll, 12 percent of respondents believed things in the nation were “generally headed in the right direction,” while some 78 percent judged things were “off on the wrong track.” In the latest poll, completed March 1 after four moths of worsening economic numbers, 41 percent of us now see things “headed in the right direction,” as opposed to 44 percent answering “off on the wrong track.”

What we do not yet know is whether Obama is blessed with Reagan’s famous Teflon coating, which enabled him somehow to deflect blame for bad times or policy. Of Reagan, political philosopher Dan Buck once noted: “If Ronald Reagan drove a convertible with the top down through a car wash, Jimmy Carter would get wet.”

What we do know is that voters today — just as they did with Reagan — like Obama more than they do his policies. And that’s good news for Democrats.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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