"Obama Is the New Reagan."
He could be. In a hundred ways, Obama and Reagan are different. But there are parallels between the moments in which they came to power. Like Reagan, Obama took office in an environment that severely constrains the ability of the United States to launch new military campaigns. For many contemporary conservatives, being a Reagan disciple means acting as if there are no limits to American strength. But the real lessons of Reaganism are about how to wield national power and bolster national pride when your hands are partially tied. That doesn't mean Obama should mimic all of Reagan's policies, some of which were deeply misguided. But Obama can, and should, be Reaganesque in his effort to project great strength at low risk.
That means understanding that America's foreign-policy debates are often cultural debates in disguise. Reagan was a master of symbolic acts -- like awarding the Medal of Honor to overlooked Vietnam hero Roy Benavidez -- that made Americans feel as though they were exorcising Vietnam's ghost without refighting the war. Obama must be equally shrewd at a time when he has no choice but to retreat from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. That means more than ritual incantations about flag and country; it means rhetorically challenging those who unfairly attack the United States. From a purely foreign-policy perspective, publicly confronting Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez when they malign the United States, or calling out universities that ban military recruiters from campus, might seem useless. But for U.S. presidents, there is no pure foreign-policy perspective; being effective in the world requires domestic support. If Obama does not want to be Jimmy Carter, if he does not want Americans to equate his restraint with their humiliation, he must be as aggressive as Reagan in finding symbolic ways to soothe Americans' wounded pride.
Even more importantly, Obama must rebuild U.S. economic strength. Although Reagan boosted the defense budget, he saw the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union fundamentally as a struggle between political and economic systems in which the dynamism of American capitalism was the West's trump card. As a liberal taking office in the wake of a financial collapse, Obama is rightly concerned not only about capitalism's dynamism, but also its stability and decency. Still, the crucial insight is that power in world affairs rests on economic strength. Obama needs to remind Americans that their most successful Cold War presidents -- Reagan included -- saw the conflict as a primarily economic struggle. Soviet communism threatened the United States less because the Red Army might overrun Western Europe than because, for a time at least, it represented a serious competitor for the hearts and minds of people across the globe.
In that regard, it is not jihadi fanaticism that has taken the Kremlin's place. After all, even in the Muslim world, barely anyone really believes that al Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran's ruling clerics can build a society prosperous and stable enough to challenge the West. The better analogue is China's 21st-century authoritarian capitalism, which has built a record of political stability and economic dynamism that has captured the imagination of people (and governments) throughout the developing world.
In the nascent economic and ideological struggle between the United States and China, wars that Washington cannot possibly pay for -- and which leave the country more reliant on foreign central bankers -- don't make America stronger; they make it weaker. Of course, the United States and China are far more economically interdependent than were the United States and the Soviet Union. But within every interdependent relationship lies a balance of power, and Obama's leverage over China will depend in large measure on his ability to stop hemorrhaging money, lives, and attention in the Muslim world so he can rebuild the political and economic institutions that form the foundation of U.S. national strength. Do that, and the American model can triumph again, peacefully. Ronald Reagan -- if not his contemporary right-wing admirers -- would understand.