What Would Ronnie Do?

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (left); Pete Souza / White House

Ronald Reagan scored a comfortable victory in 1980, promising a new day in Washington and the nation. Then Reaganomics ran into brick wall. Unemployment—7.4 percent at the beginning of his term—was heading toward 10 percent by the summer of 1982. The gross domestic product declined 1.8 percent. On Election Day, voters punished him by taking 27 House seats from his Republican Party, including most of the ones gained in 1980. That gave the Democrats a 269–166 seat advantage—far greater than the 51-seat advantage Republicans enjoy today.

The day after that woeful election, Reagan's aides sent him into a press conference with defensive talking points. He tore them up. "We're very pleased with the results," he said, claiming that the GOP had "beat the odds" for off-year elections (he went back to 1928 to make the claim). "Wasn't he in worse shape for 1984?" he was asked. "I don't think so at all," he replied. Hadn't it been a historically uncivil campaign? He agreed—because of all the opposition did to "frighten voters."

Barack Obama gave a press conference the day after his "shellacking" too. The contrast to Reagan couldn't have been more stark. Ignoring the fact that the electorate had pretty much been switching their party preference every two years since 1992, he conceded the loss as an epochal sea change. "I did some talking," he said of his meeting with Republican leaders the night before, "but mostly I did a lot of listening." When asked about jobs, he talked about the deficit. He then boasted that when it came to what was essential to recovery, he really didn't have essential principles at all: the answers were not to be "found in any one particular philosophy or ideology."

Is Obama Keeping His Promises?

With his State of the Union address this week, Obama kicks off the second half of his presidency with his fortunes on the rise; his approval ratings just crested 50 percent. Still, there is a lot he could learn from the way Reagan handled the midpoint in his first White House term. And the president seems to know it; on vacation in December, he said he'd been boning up on Lou Cannon's authoritative chronicle President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. On this, the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth, here are some of the lessons Obama should be absorbing—that is, if he wants to rebound as resoundingly as Reagan did, and go on to a landslide reelection and canonization as an American political icon.

Talk Tough, but Sell Out Quickly

Ronald Reagan compromised constantly. He did it in an entirely different way from Barack Obama. The compromises were tactical, technical—and always, according to Reagan, the fault of someone else. That was how he explained why he had fallen short of his goals: the danged Democrats wouldn't even give his program a decent try. But he would keep pushing nonetheless. "We won't compromise on principle," he said at that Nov. 3, 1982, press conference, "on what we absolutely believe is essential to the recovery … We're going to stay the course." Ronald Reagan never took the podium to "learn." He was there to teach—that is to say, to lead. Every compromise was an opportunity to educate the American people about what he really wanted—and what they should really want. It worked. He changed the world. More proximately, he won an overwhelming reelection.

At his Nov. 3, 2010, press conference, Obama took "direct responsibility" for the slow pace of recovery. He also placed responsibility with the citizenry: we were falling behind in global economic competition, and to "win that competition, we're going to need to be strong and we're going to need to be united." Both utterances would have been foreign to Ronald Reagan's tongue. For him, the American people were always strong and united, and ahead in the race—that is, unless their strength, unity, and drive were sullied by his foolish and recalcitrant liberal opposition.

Obama said, "I won't pretend that we will be able to bridge every difference or solve every disagreement"—to which the ghost of Ronald Reagan would reply, "Why would you want to bridge differences with people who are wrong?"

Take Credit for Economic Recovery

Reagan in 1983 was in much worse shape politically than Obama is in 2011. His approval rating at the height of the recession was 35 percent. Political cartoons portrayed Captain Reagan bellowing "Stay the course!" as the ship of state plunged over a cliff. David Broder proclaimed, "What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phaseout."

But then came the remarkable economic recovery. Inflation, which had been 11 percent upon his inauguration, fell to 2 percent. Unemployment fell from a very familiar 9.6 percent to 7.5 percent. Economic growth began charting a remarkable 7.2 percent rate of annual growth.

That's just the sort of thing that Obama is praying for; the state of the economy, experts agree, is the most reliable indicator of whether a president gets reelected. But it wasn't the mere fact of recovery that let Reagan take 49 states and cement the sense, as historian Sean Wilentz put it, that we are living in the Age of Reagan. It was that Reagan had been laying the groundwork to take the credit for the recovery since before he was inaugurated. He did it by laying all blame on his political adversaries.

In recent years conservatives have been excoriating Obama for "blaming" his predecessor whenever he made the mild observations that he inherited a bad economy. Reagan had no such compunction, blaming his predecessor in often cruel and mocking ways. The Carter budget he inherited, he said, was full of outright distortions. The "midnight regulations" the lame-duck Congress was said to have imposed didn't help; nor did the "poor management" of the Carter Treasury Department.

He carried the theme into the fall campaign by charging "that the sour economy is the fault of former president Jimmy Carter." "Some diehards are now declaring the present recession was caused by our program," he said. "May I just point out, we had the recession before we got the program. But the voices keep right on carping." Obviously, that didn't work well that November. But by sticking to his guns, he'd etched blame for the bad times in the public mind—setting himself up for credit when things turned around.

Simplify Your Story

Reagan had an easily communicable story about how economies recover. Obama doesn't have one—in fact, he abhors easily communicable stories, reviling them as "bumper-sticker slogans." This disadvantages him in the long game politically. Let's say the economy turns around. Will he be prepared to do what Reagan did—explain why the credit belongs to him? Already, Republicans are claiming credit for modest gains since the election; they attribute it to the very act of impaneling a Republican Congress. It increased "business confidence"—one of their bumper-sticker slogans.

There's nothing intrinsically right wing about explaining complex economic processes in easily digestible ways; FDR—Reagan's rhetorical role model—did it all the time. Reagan's story was very simple: "Our government is too big, and it spends too much." So he would reverse everything Carter had done (except when Congress wouldn't let him—and then the problems were Congress's fault, weren't they?). Then, lo and behold, the economy recovered. As the historian Wilentz put it: "The slogan 'stay the course,' which had once sounded like whistling in the dark, now reverberated like an irresistible battle cry."

Create Handy Villains

Reagan was good at framing his opponents as villains, even if he smiled while he said it. His opponent Walter Mondale, for example, was "Vice President Malaise." Reagan said: "We were being led by a team with good intentions and bad ideas—people with all the common sense of Huey, Dewey, and Louie." Democrats accused him of lacking compassion. He replied, "There's no compassion in snake-oil cures."

Here and now, to the public, Republican House Speaker John Boehner is still a cipher. If Reagan was in Obama's shoes, he'd already have painted him as the out-of-touch guy making time for the tanning bed during a recession, skipping state dinners in a time of war. But the president hasn't laid a finger on him. He's allergic to calling Republicans anything worse than "bad driver." To do any worse, he thinks, it to break faith with an electorate that reasonably craves national unity.

Be a Divider

Despite his skill at vividly conjuring his enemies, Reagan somehow managed to be seen by a large majority of the public as a unifying figure—then and now. "This belief that Reagan had 'brought the country' back together was a recurrent refrain in voter interviews during the campaign … and in election-day exit polls," Lou Cannon writes—even among voters who said they didn't like his policies.

Staking out firm ideological ground, and being perceived as a uniter, not a divider, are not incommensurate tasks. Ronald Reagan proved they can be strongly reinforcing. It is an alchemical task—one of consummate leadership. How did he do it? By projecting strength—a strength that blinded the public to the contradictions at hand. Can Obama find a way to pull that off? If so, the most popular politician in the country may well win a safe reelection. But an Age of Obama? It may be too late for that.

Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.