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It's Morning in America

The strange similarity between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama

by Jay Walljasper - 5 Nov 2008

It’s morning in America!

Serious students of American political history might scowl at that assessment of Barack Obama’s victory last night. Those words are Ronald Reagan’s—who invoked them to great success in describing his sunny vision of how the free market would improve everyone’s lives.

The election results last night were a result, in part, of the failure of Reagan’s vision and policies. We’ve seen over the past eight years, and especially the last eight weeks what happens when selfish pursuit of private wealth becomes the government-sanctioned operating system for our economy.

Our economy is in peril right now, and voters clearly recognized that the free market fantasies of Republicans were to blame. That’s one key reason they gave Obama a decisive majority of their votes—the first for a Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years. (Jimmy Carter in 1976 posted a razor thin 50.1 percent majority.) Chalk that up as a dramatic repudiation of Ronald Reagan’s legacy.

But the other key reason Obama won handily—winning longtime GOP strongholds like Virginia, Indiana and Colorado—is that he offers a vision of hope and bright days ahead. And in this way he actually resembles Reagan, and his election triumph opens the possibility of reordering American society as happened after Reagan’s 1980 victory.

Barack Obama’s philosophy and policies are in many ways the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s, but some day we might compare the two men for the way they dramatically shifted the direction of America.

Obama himself seems to understand the connection with Reagan, which explains why during the primaries this year he called the former Republican president a “transformational” figure in American history.  Hillary Clinton chastised Obama for praising Reagan, but I think it’s clear that it was not Reagan’s policies that Obama admired but rather his ability to inspire people to believe that positive change is possible.

Reagan’s political success was not simply what happened in Washington. He symbolized a widespread change of consciousness—elevating some previously unthinkable notions to the status of conventional wisdom while ensuring that other reasonable proposals were deemed unfeasible, wrongheaded or hopelessly old-fashioned.

Reagan’s victory sent a chill through many creative sectors of our culture from the arts and academia to business and social activism. Millions of worthy, even brilliant, ideas were shot down—sometimes even by the people who conceived them—as preposterous to discuss in a country where Ronald Reagan was president.

This was the era when other nations began to outpace us on important innovations—from wind energy to women’s empowerment—that had been incubated right here in the USA.

But this is our moment, as Obama says. It represents a true morning in America, not Ronald Reagan’s false dawn.

I believe that Obama’s solid electoral victory can open the doors to fresh thinking and practical measures in many fields. While the sorry state of the economy and astronomical budget deficits he inherits might seem to constrict possibilities for the future, his campaign has instilled the nation with a rising sense of hope that may soon result in remarkable progress on a number of fronts.

And I believe that the commons—which fits so squarely with Obama’s theme that “we” is a more powerful force than “me”—is one of those ideas that will flourish, fostering diverse and lasting efforts around the world to create a commons-based society.

Yes, we can.