Barack Obama found himself under fire on Thursday for having compared his candidacy to Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential run.
"I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board earlier this week. "I think part of what is different is the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. 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."
The remark did not go over well in progressive circles. On Thursday, Sen. John Edwards, Obama's opponent for the Democratic nomination, ripped into him for the analogy, saying, "I can promise you this: this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."
But while Obama has felt the heat from within his own party, several former Reagan officials and even his son suggest that there are elements of historical truth to the comparison.
"If I understand what he was saying I can't entirely disagree with it. They both came along at times when society was on the cusp of change and they are both agents of change," Ron Reagan told the Huffington Post. "As far as Barack Obama being a similar agent of change, that remains to be seen. But what I do see him saying is that we are in a historical moment right now like the 60s and 80s. And I think he's right. We are overdue for a cultural shift."
Other Reagan aides grabbed onto the comparison, drawing historical similarities between the end of the Carter administration and the contemporary political landscape. The economic malaise and hangover from Vietnam of the late 1970s, they argued, are analogous in some ways to the middle class unrest and backlash to neo-conservatism today. And yet, for several Reaganites, it was the tone and tenor of Obama that best echoed the image of their former boss.
"Ronald Reagan was an inspirational leader who also was a uniter. There was never any vindictive stuff to the other side," said Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan aide and current Obama supporter who serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "In 1983, when you had the commission to fix Social Security, which basically gave us 20 more years with the program, after it was over Reagan would not campaign against any [Democrat] who supported that. And the harshest thing he said against [Walter] Mondale was that he was too young. There was never any of this vindictiveness... I think Obama is trying to get us back to that pleasantness."
Added Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute and a speechwriter for Reagan's White House: "I do believe Obama is right in looking back at the election of 1980 and saying that was a historical inflection point. Of course there is a certain amount of self-flattery involved in that statement, but he might be right." Robinson added: "I do think Ronald Reagan would have found Barack Obama appealing."
Others former Reagan officials said they saw aspects of Reagan in Obama's attempt to present himself as the candidate outside the status quo.
"A lot of people of different persuasions see him as the only candidate in the race who has much chance of creating any change. My friends don't see much difference between Hillary Clinton and McCain and George Bush for that matter. Whether it is justified or not, I don't know. But there has been some sort of feeling that among people in the running, that Obama might actually change the status quo," said Paul Craig Roberts, the man tasked with overseeing Reaganomics. "I think that's the way Reagan came across, that he was not the status quo president. And of course whenever someone comes into office they turn into the status quo, but it takes a little longer to get that way when you don't start out there."
Of course, with any historical analysis there are multiple interpretations. And some former Reagan advisers, even those who see a bit of the 1980 Gipper in Obama's current candidacy, point to sharp contrasts between the two.
"The dynamics are entirely different," said Bruce Fein, Reagan's deputy attorney general. "Reagan's campaign was built on expanding and strengthening the confidence of the United States at a time when it was at its lowest depth, and we had a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union... We have an opposite problem today. We have an arrogance. We have a government that feels it is too superior... We have an executive branch that is bloated and ballooned suggesting that Osama bin Laden is the equivalent of the Soviet Union... I think [Obama's] comparison shows he is living in a different mental universe than people who know history... It seems to me [Obama] is the same old thing other than the mindless statement of change. What does that even mean?"
Added Charlie Black, an senior adviser to Reagan and George H.W. Bush: "[Obama] is a charismatic man, is very articulate and makes a great speech, but I think the similarities with Reagan stop there. He is a very doctrinaire liberal and Reagan was the father of the conservative movement, so the differences are quite vast."
Finally, there are those Reagan advisers who say: who cares? The whole Obama-Gipper comparison, they note, is nothing more than a red meat for the political pundits.
"I think Senator Obama's statement is happy fodder for columnists and commentators," remarked Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan. "They can draw a measured comparison, assert the obvious as an insight, make a few jokes, and play to their bases. ("Obama makes a mistake in comparing himself to the ancient reactionary in whose thrall the right remains"; "I knew Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan was a friend of mine, and Senator Obama...") So this is all good for commenters, and as a member of that guild I say: thank you. But to break into reality for a second: If Barack Obama is a great man it will become apparent with time, and if he is not, that will become apparent too."