Ronald Reagan

Michelle Obama’s Breakthrough Speech

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

Presidential nominating conventions are runways for politicos to show off their stories and styles. Occasionally, there are breakthrough speeches that launch political careers or send them to new heights.

Ronald Reagan went from revered actor to governor of California and serious presidential timber with his speech to the GOP National Convention in 1964. Barack Obama emerged from the relative obscurity of an Illinois state senator in 2004 to become a U.S. senator and a serious presidential contender in 2008.

Michelle Obama may have scored a breakthrough moment Monday at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Some commentators rank her remarks as among the best convention speeches in decades. While Hillary Clinton’s nomination broke through the penultimate glass ceiling in America, Michelle Obama’s speech broke through to reach the hearts of millions of Americans.

Poynter broke down the First Lady’s speech and credited its strong appeal to Obama’s use of the first person, touching anecdotes and a narrative built around “kids.” These qualities gave her speech universality and made it much more than a stump speech in support of Hillary Clinton.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Obama set the tone in her first paragraph: "You know, it's hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace — the traits that we've seen every day that he's served our country in the White House."

She kept her central narrative personal. "I also told you about our daughters — how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we've had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women — a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school."

And about the first morning the Obamas were in the White House, she recalled, “I will never forget that winter morning as I watch our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

Perhaps her most memorable line was, “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high” and the most touching anecdote was about the young black boy who wondered whether President Obama’s hair felt like his, prompting the President to bend over and let him find out for himself.

Apart from the technical skill, beautiful writing and polished delivery, Michelle Obama’s speech transported listeners far beyond the current political battlefield into what it means to lead a nation and the stakes of presidential decision-making.

"What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that's what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere." 

Whether Michelle Obama elects to pursue a political career of her own after the Obamas leave the White House, her speech turned fertile groundwork. She will be known for planting a vegetable garden, pushing for school lunch nutrition and supporting the families of military veterans, but perhaps she will be best known for the speech she gave on a platform in Philadelphia in 2016 that wrapped up to its conclusion with:

"So don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth."

Lessons from Reagan’s 1982 Gas Tax Hike

In the fall of 1982, President Reagan’s opposition to a gas tax increase couldn’t be more clear. When he was asked at a September 28 press conference, “Can you assure the American people that you’ll flatly rule out any tax increases, revenue enhancers or specifically an increase in the gasoline tax?” Reagan responded, “Unless there’s a palace coup and I’m overtaken or overthrown, no, I don’t see the necessity for that.” 

Well, it didn’t take a palace coup. It took a mid-term election in which Republicans lost seats and rising unemployment, which cracked double digits for the first time in decades. Three months later, in December 1982, President Reagan signed a groundbreaking transportation bill that more than doubled the federal gas tax from 4 cents to 9 cents and increased transit funding.

The measure's incredible journey offers lessons for today’s leaders who face a similarly troubled landscape  – crumbling infrastructure, a highway trust fund on the verge of bankruptcy and divided government. 

Eno Trans Jeff Davis researched the provocative tale of the 1982 transportation bill and revealed how one of the most important public infrastructure bills of the 20th century became law. With his new report, “Reagan Devolution: The Real Story of the 1982 Gas Tax Increase,” Davis unearths a roadmap for how leadership, pragmatism and relationships can be leveraged to move past ideology. You can read the report for yourself here. Below are some reflections on what I think are the most relevant components for today’s debate.

1.  Under the Guise of Devolution: President Reagan understood well the nation’s infrastructure gap, but he also didn’t want to grow the size of the federal government. Initially, Reagan supported a plan that would transform the federal transportation framework by giving significant control back to the states. If Reagan was going to support a gas tax increase, the authority to spend every penny of the new increase would ultimately be given back to the states – a concept called devolution. The feds would thus retain spending authority over the current 4 cent per gallon gas tax to focus on the federal highway system, but over time, the 5-cent increase would be devolved to the states. While devolution was ultimately left on the cutting room floor, the ideological framework would give transportation supporters in the Administration the space they needed to keep the option of a gas tax on the table. These architects knew full well it was unlikely the Congress would go along with devolution, but they were appealing to Reagan’s conservative values. Ultimately, their persistence paid off.  

Today, devolution supporters point to Reagan’s efforts to return control of transportation spending authority to states but often fail to acknowledge that Reagan acquiesced in favor of pragmatism. While devolution never materialized, it was a big part of feeding Reagan’s conservative, reform minded ideology as the package was being devised. Legislators today could consider a similar approach. While devolution is not a realistic nor prudent option in my opinion, leaders could try to appease conservative devolution advocates. Congress could consider adding elements of local control of federal resources without jeopardizing the health of the nation’s interconnected network of roads. 

2.  User Fee and Shock Absorbers: Reagan was vehemently opposed to raising general income taxes, but he understood the need for increasing the gas tax because those who paid directly benefited. He always preferred to use the term user fee over gas tax.

This is how Reagan framed the discussion in his November 27 radio address. “So, what we’re proposing is to add the equivalent of 5 cents per gallon to the existing Federal highway user fee, the gas tax. That hasn’t been increased for the last 23 years. The cost to the average motorist will be small, but the benefit to our transportation system will be immense… The program will not increase the Federal deficit or add to the taxes that you and I pay on April 15. It will be paid for by those of us who use the system, and it will cost the average car owner only about $30 a year. That’s less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.” 

Today, the same argument could easily be restated. The gas tax hasn’t been increased in 22 years – back in 1993 – and the impact to the average driver would still cost less than the price of a couple shock absorbers. The shock absorber argument was effectively and brilliantly used often by the Administration. Because a driver would likely need to replace their shocks more frequently if the government didn’t fix the roads and potholes in disrepair, you might as well fix the roads. That logic still holds up today.

3.  Leadership: In 1982, the country was still in the grips of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Unemployment had just surpassed 10 percent.  Passing a gas tax increase was just as toxic back then as it is now. After Democrats had picked up seats in the mid-term election, the President and his team knew action was needed on the jobs front. There were leaders in both the Executive and Legislative branches that had strong working and personal relationships. This trust was critical to the Democratically controlled House and Republican Senate. The transportation bill was portrayed as a “jobs” bill by both parties and the President understood the Congress was going to act. 

As a pragmatic politician, the President got on board and ultimately pushed for the bill. As Jim Baker, the President’s chief of staff said at the time, “If Reagan told me once, he told me fifteen thousand times – I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.”

Today, there is a serious lack of leadership in DC and trust between the Executive and Legislative branches is nearing all-time lows. As the transportation proposal moves through Congress, this may be the most challenging obstacle to overcome. If the transportation bill can be reframed as a jobs bill, like in 1982, maybe both parties can pull another rabbit out of the legislative hat and come up with a compromise that both parties could tout. 

4.  The Grease – Demonstration Projects: When the Reagan Administration got on board and started lobbying for a transportation bill, agency officials started reaching out to wavering Members of Congress. The Administration promised federal funding for pet projects across the country. Not only were “Demonstration Projects” explicitly written into the bill, but DOT officials would call wavering Members to assure certain construction projects would be funded by the DOT. Runway extensions, control towers, roads and bridges were all used to grease the congressional wheels and quiet opposition to raising the gas tax. 

Earmarks are prohibited in the current Congress. Members have little incentive to support a gas tax increase because they can’t point to projects in their states and districts. While earmarks may be out of favor with the public broadly, Congress could come up with a way to ensure enough states and districts receive their fair share of federal spending to construct key infrastructure projects that benefit the daily lives of commuters.

Lewinsky Scandal Tipped Presidential Approval Ratings

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

President Obama's approval ratings have continued to droop under the weight of criticism about his handling of the Ebola crisis as he has steadfastly refused, as critics have demanded, to close the U.S. border to anyone traveling from West Africa.

Curiously, Monica Lewinsky, now in her 40s, has resurfaced to talk about her love affair with President Bill Clinton. A Washington Post political blogger sees a connection.

Presidential approval ratings have taken on a partisan flavor, just as other aspects of political life. Gallup generated data showing the most polarized viewpoints of Presidents over the last 50 years have occurred since 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush.

The gaps between Republicans and Democrats is astounding. Approval ratings for Obama in 2012-2013 and for Bush in 2004-2005 showed a 76 percentage point spread among partisans.

President Bill Clinton's approval rating in 1996-1997 was 85 percent by Democrats, but only 23 percent by Republicans — a 62 percentage-point spread.

President Ronald Reagan's approval rating in 1984-1985 was 89 percent by Republicans and 29 percent by Democrats — a 60 percentage-point spread.

Chris Cillizza, writing "The Fix" political blog in The Washington Post, says the Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was what cemented polarized perspectives on Presidents.

"Democrats came to view the whole Lewinsky saga as a personal foible that, while awful for the Clintons, meant nothing as to whether or not Bill Clinton was — or could be — and effective President," Cillizza wrote. "Republicans, on the other hand, viewed Clinton's initial lies about the relationship as fundamentally disqualifying."

"There's no question that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – and by that I mean the whole thing, including how the media covered it, how politicians reacted to it and how technology turned it into a worldwide sensation — was a pivot point in American politics, a time when things changed and haven't changed back."

Aiken Treads Celebrity Footsteps to Congress

Congress already has a comic, now a pop singer is trying to join him. American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken has announced a bid for a North Carolina congressional seat.

People snickered when Al Franken entered politics, but it was no joke when he rode his comic reputation on Saturday Night Live and a syndicated political talk show to victory over incumbent Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman in 2008.

Skeptics doubt whether Aiken, despite his high-profile discovery on American Idol, music tours and bestselling book, can win a congressional seat in North Carolina, where he was born, grew up and eventually became a special education teacher in Raleigh. The skepticism centers on Aiken's political affiliation, activism and announcement in 2008 that he gay.

Some detractors also point out ‑ he is a perpetual loser, including being the runner-up in the fifth season of The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012.

But the Aiken story may not be so simplistic. Before he broke through on American Idol, Aiken, who grew up as a "proud Southern Baptist," specialized in contemporary Christian music. Christian Music Planet labeled Aiken an "American Idol Christian" in 2004. Some of his most popular work is on Christmas albums.

Aiken has a son who was born in North Carolina in 2008 and, in Southern tradition, was given his grandmother's maiden name, Foster, as his first name. The boy's mother is the sister of the producer of three of Aiken's albums.

In addition to the people interested in seeing a pop star at their local library, Aiken may be able to draw political support from his activism on behalf of AIDS prevention, gender equity and programs such as Toys for Tots. Aiken is credited with founding the National Inclusion Project that runs summer camps for children with physical and mental disabilities. President George W. Bush appointed Aiken to a presidential commission dealing with people with intellectual disabilities.