Presidents Then and Now
Reagan, Bush Contrasts Are as Telling as Parallels
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A27
The parallels are obvious for all to see: two conservative presidents who made tax cuts at home and muscular confrontation abroad the centerpieces of their administrations, westerners who sought to restrain the federal government but who had trouble taming the beast, men of faith who courted Christian conservatives, politicians who were often controversial and divisive in office.
But as President Bush prepares to eulogize former president Ronald Reagan at Washington National Cathedral today, the contrasts between the two men, their presidencies and the eras in which they governed are as telling as the parallels.
From their personalities to their relationship with Congress to the way the rest of the world viewed the United States under their leadership, Bush and Reagan offer divergent styles of leadership. If the most frequently used word to remember Reagan's political persona has been "optimistic," the word most offered by Bush's advisers and supporters in his first term is "resolute."
The president has resisted claiming the Reagan mantle this week -- "[I] think of myself as a 'George W. Republican,' " Bush told NBC anchor Tom Brokaw over the weekend -- but in 2000 he patterned his campaign far more on the Reagan model than on that of his own father, former president George H.W. Bush.
The president built that campaign on bedrock conservative doctrine, wrapped in the rhetoric of compassion, knowing that the path to victory began with a commitment to conservative positions, from deep tax cuts to national missile defense to unwavering opposition to abortion. He came to Washington, in part, to complete the unfinished political agenda of the Reagan presidency, which was to cement the GOP as the dominant party.
Among the greatest differences between Reagan and Bush is the country they inherited. The United States in 1981 was demoralized, battered by inflation, hungering for inspiration and for a clear change in direction. The United States in 2001 was generally contented, feeling strong and prosperous, although prosperity was beginning to wane. Politically, the country was polarized and divided by the 36-day recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision that gave the presidency to the Republicans.
Reagan arrived with a mandate for change and began to act on it. Bush arrived with no mandate but moved as though he had one, offering bold, aggressive and controversial leadership. Both pushed major tax cuts and bent Democratic opposition to win significant victories. Both prided themselves on being big-picture presidents, focusing on clear principles and surrounded by advisers who worried about the details. Both were deemed by critics as inattentive, incurious. Both were described, not always in a complementary tone, as cowboys.
"They're obviously similar in that they've both set a limited number of broad goals and are willing to stick to them even when the going gets tough," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. "They've both been aggressive toward this country's adversaries -- Reagan against communism, Bush against terrorism. They both were vilified by the left."
The contrasts are equally vivid. Reagan remains the Great Communicator, a description rarely applied to the current president. Bush's television commercials this spring have been punctuated by his references to being optimistic, but the persona he has more often projected in leading the war on terrorism is less optimistic than determined, less upbeat than grimly unwavering. Although he was known for his wisecracking personality as a candidate, post-Sept. 11 he has used humor less often and to less effect than Reagan.
Both Bush and Reagan got their way with Congress in their first years in office. Bush's success ratings, as compiled by Congressional Quarterly, are actually higher in each of the first three years, the highest since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
But Bush has had a more distant relationship with Congress. Reagan developed friendships with two powerful Democrats, one of them House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (Mass.). Bush has not, and administration officials blame Democrats for not meeting the president halfway. But some Congress watchers say the problem is that Bush listens less and commands more in his dealing with Congress than Reagan did.
"Reagan loved the give-and-take with the Congress," said a former Reagan administration official who declined to be identified in order to offer a candid appraisal. "He loved the stories, he was captivated with the theatrics. [Bush] has the problem of a closely divided Congress where every last vote counts, and there may be less of a desire to spend more time socializing than there needs to be."
Reagan and Bush talked about reining in the federal government, but with both the deficit mushroomed. A study released yesterday by the American Enterprise Institute found that Bush has been far less aggressive in cutting spending. Nondefense outlays, adjusted for inflation, fell by 9.7 percent in Reagan's first term but have risen 25.3 percent during Bush's.
Reagan and Bush shared a warm relationship with Christian conservatives, but Bush has been far more attentive to their political agenda.
"The relationship [with Christian conservatives] is much more intimate because the force of their power within the Republican Party is much more significant" today than it was during Reagan's presidency, said a former Christian Coalition leader who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the relationship.
The most significant difference between Bush and Reagan, critics of the current president say, is how the two leaders affected the nation's image in the world. Reagan, they argue, rebuilt respect for the United States, and after a period of confrontation with the Soviet Union, turned to negotiation. His presidency is judged to have helped hasten the end of the Cold War and he left the United States more admired than when he came into office. Bush, his critics say, inherited a nation widely respected, and through his go-it-alone approach he has left the United States disliked throughout Europe.
"When Ronald Reagan was president, people had a different view of their own country and people around the world had a different view of the country than they do today, and that's largely because of President Bush," Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said.
Bush's defenders say that it is too early to draw that conclusion, that at this point in Reagan's presidency, Europe was alarmed by his determination to deploy cruise missiles there and his willingness to fuel a new arms race. In a few more years, they say, Bush may be seen differently abroad.
That points to another big difference between the two leaders -- the arc of events and its effect on their political support. Reagan hit the skids in his second year, largely because of a deep recession in 1982, then rebuilt his popularity as the economy rebounded. Bush hit his high point after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has since declined steadily, except during the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam Hussein.
"Reagan had a story to tell at this time in 1984 that was incredibly positive," said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, "that after a decade of disappointments, the economy was in recovery and America was standing tall. . . . In Bush's case, nothing is as clear-cut."
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company