With former first lady Nancy Reagan’s hand on his shoulder, President Obama on Tuesday signed into law a commission to commemorate the 100th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth in 2011, and heaped praise on the man he said lifted the country out of a troubling time.
“President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics - that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day,” Mr. Obama said, as the former first lady gazed up at him.
The meeting between the two also gave Mr. Obama the chance to put right a couple of recent mistakes or missed opportunities, with Mr. Obama telling Mrs. Reagan he’s a big admirer and assuring her that his wife, Michelle, is as well.
“She thinks the world of you,” the president said to the former first lady as he was escorting her from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room after signing the commission bill.
In his first press conference after winning the election, Mr. Obama said he had called all the living presidents, then joked he didn’t call the dead ones because “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any seances.” He apologized later that day.
Then, in a recent article in Vanity Fair, Mrs. Reagan let it be known she was disappointed the president didn’t invite her to the White House for the signing of an executive order expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama took pains to praise Mrs. Reagan’s work on stem cell research, and said she has “been extraordinarily gracious” to him and his wife.
For her part, Mrs. Reagan was inseparable from the president the entire time they were in the room: When he escorted her to the lectern, she had one hand on her cane and the other tucked in the crook of Mr. Obama’s arm; when he spoke, she kept her arm on his elbow, and when he signed the bill, she had her hand on his shoulder.
She also watched the president closely as he used six pens to sign the measure.
“You’re a lefty?” she asked.
“I am a lefty,” the president confirmed.
He then handed her one of the pens he used to sign the bill, though he observed somewhat self-consciously, “You have plenty of presidential pens.”
It’s not the first time Mr. Obama has praised the father figure of modern conservatism, and his praise of Mr. Reagan earned him as much trouble from Democrats as his ill-aimed joke about Mrs. Reagan did from Republicans.
During the presidential campaign, he put Mr. Reagan in a category of transformational presidents that he said other two-term presidents of the 20th century failed to achieve: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
A few minutes after he signed the bill, Mr. Obama issued a signing statement saying he will view the role of members of Congress who are on the centennial commission as advisory - and pointed to a similar executive signing statement from Mr. Reagan himself in 1983 as the precedent.
Joining Mr. Obama at the bill-signing were Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly and Dana Rohrabacher, both of California, and Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Democratic Rep. Bill Foster, both of Indiana.
On Wednesday, a statue of Mr. Reagan will be unveiled at the Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues in the Capitol complex, and Mr. Reagan’s will be the second from California, replacing Thomas Starr King, a preacher credited with helping keep California in the Union during the Civil War.
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