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Opinion: Obama Is the New Reagan

Both men offered a message of hope in a time of war, high oil prices and weak economies, explains USC professor Diane Winston.

Just a generation ago, Americans were up against an unwinnable war, an unpopular president and a faltering economy. Prices were up, wages were down and a shortage of oil — due as much to the manipulations of domestic producers as to an Arab oil embargo — had created a crisis of confidence. Neither Gerald Ford, an amiable Republican, nor Jimmy Carter, a managerial Democrat, could provide a national vision that healed and inspired.

Ronald Reagan, campaigning against Carter in 1980, asked Americans a simple question: “Are you better off now then you were four years ago?” He offered a cure for the nation’s malaise: less government, a stronger military and a return to traditional values. (As he famously told an evangelical gathering in 1980, “You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”)

Reagan’s actual successes can be debated, but the perception of his presidency, among a majority of Americans, is that he restored the United States to its former glory. When he introduced his 1984 campaign tag line, “It’s morning again in America,” voters agreed, re-electing him in a lopsided 49-state sweep.

There are many parallels between the mid-1970s and today. It’s more than the war, the economy and the out-of-touch leaders. Back then, Americans took stock of their world and felt helpless: The environment was degraded, women’s roles were in flux, and traditional values seemed to be in decline. Perhaps as a result, religion experienced an upswing. Gurus’ followings grew and evangelicals enlarged their flocks. Only mainline Protestant denominations — criticized for being more socially oriented than spiritually minded — saw their numbers dive.

Ronald Reagan capitalized on a cultural moment of change and uncertainty by providing a vision of continuity, a message of hope, and an assurance that the best was yet to come. If you study Reagan’s record, you’ll see he got some things right, but many others wrong (remember Grenada, Iran-Contra and Reaganomics). But he led Americans forward after almost a decade of feeling stuck and in the process rearranged the political landscape, for better or worse, with middle America — white, middle class, God-fearing and hard-working folk — at its center.

All this seems pertinent when I read media accounts about Barack Obama and the hope he engenders across racial, religious and regional lines. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan eloquently described Obama’s appeal in his December 2007 piece “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters.” Obama may not have an answer to every woe, but he holds the promise of a new morning.

Ronald Reagan’s success is a reminder of the power of symbols. A list of his accomplishments, the most significant of which was helping bring an end to the Cold War, must include his re-envisioning of the American dream. Re-envisioning our collective identity requires a new synthesis of national pride, economic promise and religious purpose, and we seem past due. The question is: Whose vision will inspire us, what will it look like, and will the media see it as it happens?

The just-released Pew Forum survey on American religious life provides the raw materials for understanding where the nation is headed. How reporters use the data to probe the new religious and political landscape — and our emergent national dream — will be fascinating to see.

Diane Winston is holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion and professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. For other columns by Winston, visit The Scoop, her blog on the Knight Chair site.


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Opinion: Obama Is the New Reagan

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