Jacob Heilbrunn

Should A Second Term Obama Imitate Reagan?

What would Barack Obama do in a second term? This is the question that Ryan Lizza poses in a lengthy and informative essay about modern presidencies in the New Yorker. Lizza suggests that he might look at Ronald Reagan's playbook, which is to say that he should focus on a few big priorities—"The Reagan Administration quickly grasped that whatever power it had gained through reelection had to be spent judiciously."

It's a conundrum that tends to preoccupy presidents as they search for a legacy. In two cases—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—it has meant heaving overboard much of the ideological baggage that encumbered them during their first term. Take Reagan. Fellow TNI blogger Paul Pillar suggests in a recent (and droll) post about conservatism and Republicans that it was "misleading" of me to suggest that Reagan was a mixture of neocon and rollback conservative. Not so, says Pillar. Reagan was a realist.

Here I must part company with Pillar. This observation is true for the second-term Reagan. It does not, however, apply to the Reagan of the first term, who in his initial press conference created a sensation by declaring that Soviet leaders reserve the right to "lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever they want." There was, in other words, plenty of chiliastic rhetoric emanating from the old boy who almost singlehandedly created the nuclear-freeze movement with his dire pronouncements. Reagan, in other words, didn't shrink from demonizing America's adversaries.

It's also the case that Reagan brought on board the neocons who had gone into exile from the Democratic party. The neocon members of the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. Reagan loved Kirkpatrick. Then there were the rollback communism types such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Al Haig, who seemed ready to go to war with Cuba. Finally, Reagan presided over the Iran-contra affair, which landed the neocons in a mess of trouble and prompted George H.W. Bush allegedly to refer to the "crazies in the basement." This was no administration of shrinking violets.

It wasn't until Reagan's second term that he shifted course, moving far beyond the detente that Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had envisioned to strike far-reaching accords with Mikhail Gorbachev. James Baker and George Shultz both played vital roles in prompting Reagan to reach out to Gorbachev. But it's also the case that Reagan got lucky. Absent Gorbachev, he would not have been able to wind down the cold war. Note that I'm not saying that Reagan was a full-blooded neocon. He believed in the alliance with Europe and used proxies, as Pillar notes, to conduct warfare (though Grenada was much ballyhooed as a sign that America was back). But as himself a lapsed supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan had some consanguinity with the neocons.

What about George W. Bush? Here again we can see the phenomenon at work. In his first term, Bush swallowed the neocon line and turned himself into the pliant instrument of Vice President Dick Cheney. By 2006, however, he had begun to wise up. Cheney was curbed. The neocons were starting to come into bad odor. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates were now conducting foreign policy. The realists—the grown-ups--had returned.

Where does this leave Obama? The president has not been very ideological in his approach to foreign affairs. He has adhered to many realist stances. At the same time, as James Mann observes in The Obamians, he has maneuvered, sometimes hypocritically, in assuming war powers that his office may not necessarily possess. Obama is no imperialist, but he has further strengthened the imperial presidency. Mann suggests that he may have even exceeded George W. Bush in this department by going to war in Libya, while claiming all along that it was not even warfare.

So where would Obama head in a second term? The old dictum of Harold MacMillan—"events, dear boy, events"—springs to mind. For all the penchant of the media for viewing the president as some kind of grand vizier, their power to control events is, more often than not, limited. Nevertheless, Obama does have proclivities and impulses, not to mention a vast national-security apparatus at his disposal, one that dwarfs anything in recent American history: Lizza suggests that Obama might be tougher than he was in his first term with countries such as Iran or China. His most immediate challenge will be in Syria where, Lizza writes, "he may have to decide if he wants to push harder to topple President Bashar al-Assad, possibly by force."

If Obama became even more interventionist, then he would be following the Bill Clinton model. During his first term, Clinton did everything he could to avoid entering the Balkans conflict militarily. In his second term, he bombed the Serbs and drove Slobodan Milosevic from power. If Obama wants to follow a more emollient approach, he will have to try and win one for the Gipper. In studying the records of his predecessors, Obama has plenty of models to choose from as he contemplates his future.