I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
I think that digby is just plain wrong in her take on this statement. On the other hand, I think that Ezra Klein gets it exactly right.
First, some snippets from digby:
I get that Obama is signaling that he sees this election as a game changing election like 1980. And he may very well be right about that. I hope so. But it's disconcerting to hear him casually recount these Republican arguments without a clear disclaimer, as if it's a matter of fact not opinion. People may have believed in 1980 that the "excesses" of the 1960's and the 1970's were the cause of all their problems and that government had "grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating" but that doesn't make it true. Republican propaganda conveniently offered up all kinds of scapegoats for the fact that the US was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, a terrible oil shock --- and a lousy economy as a result of all those things. An awful lot of the "excesses" Reagan spoke of in carefully coded speech had to do with civil rights and more urgently at the time, integration, specifically busing, which was one of the hot buttons that drove the "Reagan Democrats" outside the south to the Republicans. And then there was the relentless, militant fear mongering about the Evil Empire ...
Remember, Reagan didn't run on "Morning in America" in 1980. That was 1984. 1980 was the much more aggressive, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
Whether or not Republican rhetoric was reflective of reality, it resonated because it reflected a certain perception of reality. Reagan understood that, blew his dog whistle, and managed 50.1% of the popular vote in 1980. It doesn't really matter that things may not have been quite as bad as Republican politicians painted them. What matters is the country was ripe to elect someone who told them the old American Dream was not dead. Reagan told them that. That he dragged all sorts of baggage with him was, I think, neither here nor there for many voters. Unlike Carter, or Mondale after him, Reagan wasn't gloomy, didn't tell us he would raise our taxes, didn't talk about the American decline. Reagan talked in the folk mythology of an America ready to face challenges, accepting what is coming with the understanding that we could face it squarely.
This is high praise for the rhetoric of Reagan, and I am someone who voted for Mondale in 1984, my first Presidential vote ever. I am proud of my vote for Mondale, even though at the remove of nearly a quarter century, I will tell you that I know he was perhaps the worst possible choice the Democratic Party could have made. There was a case to be made against Reagan, and Mondale just wasn't the person to make it.
Progressives like to dismiss Reagan as a crank, or perhaps some sinister character who used his wonderful phrases to hide the horrid mess of right-wing nonsense that has followed in his wake. I doubt he was either that intelligent or that clever; I think he was simply articulating something missing from American politics for a long while - the possibility that America and Americans could be better again, could rise to the challenges of stagflation and a resurgent Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan. People responded to it not because they were closet right-wingers, or because they were racists; those elements certainly latched on to Reagan like a stink to an outhouse, but I think at its most basic, Reagan's appeal was something deeply American. He has not had a duplicator, only imitators, since, in either party.
In contrast to digby's somewhat visceral reaction to Obama's words, I offer a bit of young Ezra, who I think nailed it quite nicely:
What he's saying is that Reagan effectively understood the ideological currents in the country and used that mastery of public opinion to drive popular sentiment. In other words, he admires Reagan for shifting the center. When he says that "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he's articulating a fundamentally different idea of the presidency than Clinton is -- more inspirational than managerial, as concerned with the prevailing ideological atmosphere as with the specifics of contemporary legislative initiatives.
[Obama's] reconstructing [Reagan's political legacy] as accountability in government rather than smallness of government, clarity of purpose rather than conservatism of purpose, dynamism and entrepreneurship rather than backlash and upward redistribution. So what's going on here is twofold. First, Obama is suggesting he has a fairly grandly ideological view of the president's role, and that it includes harnessing the ideological forces of the moment to push the country in a new direction. Second, he's sanitizing and subtly reworking Reagan's legacy, and more than Reagan's legacy, the lessons of the 80s, so they fit with a liberal worldview, rather than undermine it.
My only quibble with Klein here is his insistence that Reagan "understood" what he was doing. I doubt it was that conscious. I think Reagan believed what he was saying; it was far more intuitive than intellectual. There was nothing at all calculated about Reagan's appeal to "the City on a Hill" (although then-Gov. Mario Cuomo's takedown at the Democratic convention was a superb job, by taking on a central myth, a story America cherishes about itself, he was dooming the Democratic Party).
I think his inclusion of Bill Clinton in the list of Presidents who haven't fundamentally changed the nature of our political climate is telling. Clinton, I think also unconsciously but with later cultivation, understood the necessity of an upbeat message. Yet, I think he also understood the conservative movement had yet to run out of steam and political capital; it was not a time for bold, persistent experimentation, as the fight over health care reform showed. Clinton was the master of retail politics at the national level, undercutting Republican ideological and strategic advantages through the appeal to lingering middle-class resentment, albeit in an upbeat way.
Obama is a conscious, intelligent Reagan of the liberal variety. This is a nice summary, and I also think it is a compliment.