THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reagan's Lesson: "Patience" in a President's First Year Is Political Suicide

When the New York Times' John Harwood reported that a top Obama adviser told him that progressives "need to take off the pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult," it was a rejoinder that expressed far more than Village disdain for grassroots pressure and activism. It represented a deeper assertion, pervasive in political circles, that says we all must be patient with the Obama White House because we're only 10 months into the new administration. "Governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult" is a euphemism for both "stop pushing so hard," "don't expect so much change so fast," "he's trying to do too much too fast" and every other similar dollop of conventional wisdom.

In one sense, there's nothing surprising about this coming from the Village. Beltway journalists, pundits and politicians are inclined to despise anything even vaguely grassroots in nature, because anything grassroots in nature fundamentally challenges their authority and power. But in another sense, it's shocking that the same Beltway culture that so consistently venerates the political vehemence, aggressiveness and legacy of Ronald Reagan would manufacture a conventional wisdom assuming that the first year of a president's first term is the time for patience.

Here's a passage from Gil Troy's Reagan biography, Morning In America that explains how most of the major legislative initiatives that have been come to be called the Reagan Revolution happened in 1981:

That summer of 1981, Reaganism peaked. The Reagan legislative steamroller continued to flatten the Democratic opposition in the Congress with the passage of Kemp-Roth tax cuts on the heels of the Stockman-Weinberger mix of social program cuts and defense increases...[Reagan] had solidified his image as a no-nonsense leader determined to repudiate his predecessors' weaknesses...

By September, however, the Democrats counterattacked...his rivals blamed him for the growing recession. Much of the next seven and a quarter years would be spent scrambling on the scrimmage line Reagan and his men had initially reached with breakneck speed. If the first half-year of the Reagan era could be considered to be a conservative blitzkreig, politically the next seven and a half years became trench warfare. Reagan failed to advance his revolution much further...From refreshing, cleansing, sometimes inspiring, sometimes terrifying promises of revolution in 1981 would emerge a frustrating, polarizing, enervating legislative gridlock.

Recall that Reagan was elected in 1980 by a smaller percentage than Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and therefore Reagan had a much smaller legislative mandate than Obama. Recall, too, that while Obama came into office with polls giving him high marks and voters giving him huge majorities in both houses of Congress, Reagan came into office with polls showing him one of the most unpopular presidents entering office, with Republicans controlling only one house of Congress (the Senate), and only by a very narrow majority (53 votes).

The dichotomy is obvious: The Reagan administration, facing huge political obstacles, powered through the bulk of the Reagan Revolution's legislative agenda in his first year in office; the Obama administration, with far fewer political obstacles, has spent the first year slow-walking things like Wall Street reform and climate change, watering down health care reform, and telling the public to be patient (this is particularly strange, considering President Obama made sure to let us all know how much he wanted to emulate the transformativeness of Reagan).

To be sure, Reagan was pushing an agenda backed by Big Money, and Obama promised to push an agenda that would challenge Big Money -- so the former's charge was easier than the latter's. Additionally, the current Obama dynamic could still change. We still have a few months to go before that first year runs out. However, that "first year" idea is no artificial construction -- as Troy notes in his book, the reason history has seen presidents from FDR to Reagan to George W. Bush pass such large portions of their agenda in the first year is because that is when presidents are most politically powerful. They have election mandates behind them and they have the chance to change the paradigms of their predecessors...and the longer they wait, the more that "Big Mo" declines, the more the opposition is emboldened and the harder it is to pass anything.

So the next time you hear a pundit or a White House aide or a run-of-the-mill Obama sycophant tell everyone to be "patient" and stop pressuring the president to move the progressive agenda forward, remember Ronald Reagan. "Patience" today ignores the fact that if history is any guide, this moment will likely be the only opportunity in the near future to create transformative change. In that sense, "patience" now is the opposite of pragmatism -- it is political suicide.