For one thing, Mr. Obama’s courses chronicled the failure of liberal policies and court-led efforts at social change: the Reconstruction-era amendments that were rendered meaningless by a century of resistance, the way the triumph of Brown gave way to fights over busing, the voting rights laws that crowded blacks into as few districts as possible. He was wary of noble theories, students say; instead, they call Mr. Obama a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.Herein lie some of the roots of Obama's qualified praise of Reagan, not only in the primary campaign but in The Audacity of Hope:
That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined.This intellectual openness, more than the policies Obama has pursued, explains the respect he's won from conservative colleagues throughout his career. When he says he's willing to consider cutting the corporate tax rate if/after lobbyist-written corporate tax loopholes are closed, or that he's not against all wars, just dumb wars, or not against free trade but in favor of fair trade, or that working class white resentments have some just cause, he's not trying to split a difference but to incorporate insights he regards as legitimate.
When Obama said during the primary that the Republican Party was "the party of ideas" for many years, he meant it -- and he fudged when Hillary attacked, in part because he'd screwed up the time frame when he said that Republicans had been the party of ideas "for the last ten or fifteen years." Clearly he thinks that Republican creativity came sooner, in the 70s and 80s, and had some legitimacy.