POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

From Person to People: Presidents Reagan and Obama Compared

by David Trumbull -- February 4, 2011

Thirty years ago tomorrow President Ronald Reagan opened his first major Presidential address to the nation on the economy with these words:

“I'm speaking to you tonight to give you a report on the state of our Nation's economy. I regret to say that we're in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.”
Last week President Barack Obama turned to the our economic condition and outlook in his 2011 State of the Union Address, stating:
“We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”
By some measures Mr. Obama is correct. By some measures the economy is improving. But for the millions of American who are unemployed, underemployed, or who have taken pay-cuts just to keep a job, there is little evidence of economic growth. There is a telling difference in how these two Presidents—thirty years apart and of quite different political persuasion—respond to unemployment.

In 1981 conservative Republican Ronald Reagan spoke of:

“7 million Americans caught up in the personal indignity and human tragedy of unemployment. If they stood in a line, allowing 3 feet for each person, the line would reach from the coast of Maine to California.”

Mr. Reagan—a man who had risen from poverty himself and who, as a conservative, instinctively thought in terms of the individual soul—conceived unemployment as a personal blow to the out-of-work man or woman. Even when he speaks of the unemployed collectively he does so with a graphic image of persons queuing up, much as at a 1930 Depression-era soup kitchen. It is an image that directs the listener to the magnitude of individual suffering and away from the abstract idea of “unemployment.”

Now consider how President Obama addressed the same suffering:

“We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer.”
Mr. Reagan’s imagery conveys that he has looked into the faces of these sufferers. He feels—and moves us to feel—sympathy. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, can merely summon up a cliched phrase about “quality of life.” I’ve no doubt President Obama cares about “our people,” but he shows little, if any, understanding of how it is for the individual person who is unable to care for his or her family. In that he is like the Charles Schulz character Linus who said, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

[David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee. Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.]