Five Ways Obama Can be More Like Reagan

One of the reasons health-care reform does so badly in polls is President Obama's gift for finding the sweet spot where he can get hammered by the left and the right. Liberals who think the bill before Congress doesn't go far enough are lumped in with Republicans who don't want any bill at all. After a year of haggling, Obama is left with a measure that Republicans circa 1993 and 1994 would have proposed, and yet he's accused of perpetrating a socialist takeover of the health-care system.

Obama said during the campaign that he would like to emulate Ronald Reagan—not because he agreed with Reagan's policies, but because he changed the country in ways that endured. Reagan has been mythologized, but he wasn't larger than life during his first two years, as economic conditions worsened. His policies, dubbed Reaganomics, were not working in ways that people could see, and unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent on Election Day in 1982. In the summer and fall of that year, his poll ratings were in the mid 40s to high 40s, much like Obama's today.

Through the force of his personality and the confidence he projected, Reagan kept Republican losses in that midterm election to a minimum (27 seats in the House; none in the Senate). He had run in 1980 on the slogan "Let's Make America Great Again" and his ability to connect with the heart of the country. By embodying optimism, he kept people believing in him. Reagan also had a very simple message to get across: he wanted to get the economy going and rebuild the nation's defense.

Obama inherited a more complicated situation, and his appeal is loftier and more abstract. At this point in his presidency, Obama has a better economic story to tell than Reagan did, but he hasn't conveyed it with the artistry and clarity that could keep people believing in him. The Dow Jones index has regained 60 percent of its value, the banks are paying back the government with interest, and passage of a health-care-reform bill would give middle-class Americans more economic security. The economy is on the upswing and, to borrow a slogan from the Reagan era, it's time to "stay the course."

If Michael Deaver, Reagan's image maestro, were still alive, and working for Obama, he would convert these glimmers of hope into “Morning in America.” Reagan had a natural ability to touch the emotions, a trait that Obama doesn't have. He's not going to get a personality transplant; he's an intellectual's intellectual, more Adlai Stevenson than Ronald Reagan. But he's a disciplined man, and here are five things he can do to gain footing as the transformative president he wants to be:

1) Get health care done, and then explain to the voters what he's been doing for the last year, and what's in it for them. This is so elementary, it's like Sarah Palin writing on her hand, but polls show the voters have no idea what Washington is cooking up for them, and they're deeply suspicious. Legislation that affects a sixth of the economy deserves a full explanation.

2) Talk to Hillary Clinton. Ask her how she connected with blue-collar voters during the '08 primaries and racked up a string of victories against Obama. She was the kitchen-table candidate telling voters not to fall for the inspirational rhetoric. Hillary hasn't always had an easy time connecting; she found the magic, and maybe she'll share her secret.

3) Do concrete things that connect with middle-class voters. Cash for Clunkers was a big winner. Cash for Caulking (tax credits for weatherizing your home) doesn't have quite the same resonance, but it's a good idea. More jobs bills that Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown can't resist voting for would also be good; nothing grand, just lots of reminders for voters that the Obama administration is working for them. Oh, and skip the big rallies. They're too much like a campaign. Look for smaller settings where Obama can rub shoulders with real people.

4) Don't forget Bush. One way to mitigate Democratic losses in November is to remind voters of what they rejected. That's what Reagan did in '82. His ace in the hole, says Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, was the vivid memories of the Carter years—the gas lines and hyperinflation, to which nobody wanted to return. "Why would we want to go back?" Reagan asked.

5) Don't cloud the message. However worthy climate legislation and immigration reform are, save them for next year. Retaining a Democratic majority demands a unity of purpose and of language that Democrats are unaccustomed to. This is Benjamin Franklin time, says Galston: they must hang together or assuredly they will all hang separately.