This is a subject I’ve taken a few days to look into. It interested me for a couple of reasons: To highlight the president as a national leader; and, to show how they articulate and carry out their political values. For this I chose Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Johnson because he reinforced the Roosevelt paradigm and cemented modern liberalism with the “Great Society” program. Reagan, because he led a reactionary conservative revolution against that paradigm. A revolution in the making since the time of Johnson. This isn’t to offer any critiques but is more along the lines of presenting history and appreciating the times, differences, and evolution of our nation’s politics, leaders, and ideology. And it certainly isn’t an all encompassing, exhaustive piece of analysis. I didn’t intend for it be.
Presidents differ greatly in their views on the proper role of government. Lyndon Johnson had a strong liberal ideology when it came to domestic affairs. He believed government was legally bound and obligated to take care of the disadvantaged and protect the welfare of society. In his inaugural speech, Johnson laid out his vision by using the words justice and injustice as code words for equality and inequality. Those words were used six times in his speech. The word freedom was used only once. It is here that he was articulating his goal for a “just” America. His “Great Society.”
Once in office, Johnson sent an unprecedented package of liberal legislation to Congress unmatched since Roosevelt’s tenure. His legislation created the Job Corps, Medicare, National Teacher Corps, and increased welfare programs to name only a few. Democratic majorities — in 1965 and 1966 — made his legislation a success with successful passage. With the Great Society unleashed, liberalism possibly reached its highest point in American life. Liberalism was the true force in national politics.
Exactly twenty years after Johnson’s speech, President Reagan gave his second inaugural address. For the second time, Reagan reasserted in places and persuaded in others of his conservative philosophy to the nation. He emphasized freedom using the word fourteen times, and never mentioned equality once. Seemingly he turned Liberalism on its head and struck Johnson down by uttering his now famous words, “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
During his presidency, Reagan undid many welfare and public programs. He cut funding for the National Teacher Corp and food stamps (ironically Clinton went a step further in this). By the end of his tenure there had been a substantial and fundamental shift in federal spending and the workings of the federal government as people previously knew it to exist. He increased defense spending to new heights and reasserted American hegemony against communism. During which, he attacked the federal programs that in the eyes of many conservatives did nothing but buy the support of Democrat interests and constituents. A new paradigm was born. Conservatism was in full swing.
This trend hasn’t changed. One could literally right a book on the nuances and differing views shared by presidents. Presidents Bush and Obama are also interesting case studies. Not to mention, the differences in party platforms between Democrats and Republicans. For example, in 2004 the gravest national threat to Republicans was nuclear terrorism. For Democrats, the greatest national threat was global climate change.
As you can see, the differences are clearly drawn.