Let Obama’s Reagan Revolution Begin
Published: January 8, 2011

BARACK OBAMA’S Christmas resurrection was so miraculous that even a birther or two may start believing the guy is a Christian.

Nothing captured the president’s sudden reversal of fortune more vividly than the Linda Blair-like head spin of the conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, who pronounced the Obama agenda “dead” on Fox News on Nov. 3 only to lead the bipartisan media hordes anointing him “the new comeback kid” six weeks later. Last week Obama’s Gallup job approval rating fleetingly hit 50 percent for the first time in eight months. Even in post-shellacking mid-December, polls found that Americans still trusted him more than Washington’s Republican leaders to fix the nation’s ills — health care included, according to the ABC News-Washington Post survey on that question.

As the do-something lame-duck Congress’s triumphs were toted up, the White House pointedly floated the news that the president was meeting with Reagan administration veterans (David Gergen, Ken Duberstein) and taking Lou Cannon’s authoritative biography “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” on vacation. Reagan, of course, was also pummeled (though a bit less so) in his maiden midterms of 1982, then carried 49 states in his 1984 re-election landslide. In January 1983, Reagan’s approval rating was much worse than Obama’s — 35 percent. So was the unemployment rate (10.4 percent vs. our current 9.4 percent) as Americans struggled to recover from what was then the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

My poll-crunching Times colleague Nate Silver has already poured cold water on the fantasy that history is fated to repeat itself in 2012. His numbers show zero correlation between presidents’ post-midterms popularity and their fates two years later. But if Obama actually read Cannon, his comeback could have legs. It’s full of leadership lessons that will be particularly useful in outfoxing political adversaries who seem not to have consulted so much as a picture book about the president they claim as their patron saint.

The right’s Stepford fetishization of Reagan reached a farcical apotheosis last week when a moderator of a debate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship tried to curtail the ritualistic bloviation by asking aspirants to name their political hero “aside from President Reagan.” This trick question so nonplussed one candidate that he coughed up “Ludwig von Mises of FreedomWorks.” Another flustered respondent chose Margaret Thatcher, perhaps fearing it would be politically incorrect to venture an answer more than one degree of separation from the big Gipper.

The present-day radicals donning Reagan drag, led by Sarah Palin, seem not to know, as Cannon writes, that their hero lurched “from excessive tax cuts to corrective tax increases disguised as tax reform” and “submitted eight unbalanced budgets to Congress in succession.” Reagan made no promise whatsoever of a balanced budget in the document that codified Reaganomics, his White House’s 281-page message to Congress in February 1981. The historian Gil Troy has calculated that spending on entitlement programs more than doubled on Reagan’s watch. America slid into debtor-nation status, and Americans “went from owing 16 cents for every dollar in national income in 1981” to owing 44 cents per dollar in 1988.

It’s also likely that Reagan would have drifted off — like most Americans — during the pretentious recitation of the Constitution in the House. He prided himself on serving as a true citizen-politician and, as Cannon writes, saw no problem in being “completely ignorant of even civics-book information about how bills were passed.”

What Reagan did know was how to deliver a message, even if that message belied his policies or actions or the facts. While perhaps no politician can ever duplicate Reagan’s brand of sunny and homespun (if Hollywood-honed) geniality, Obama has his own radiance when he wants to turn it on — a quality Reagan opponents like Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lacked and that is beyond the imagination of frothing-at-the-mouth Tea Partiers. But Obama is less adept at keeping his messages simple, consistent and crystal-clear.

In a particularly instructive passage, Cannon tells of Reagan’s habit of endlessly recycling an inspirational World War II anecdote that, as the press discovered, was a movie-spawned fiction. His White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, was only half-joking when he deflected critics with the old saw “if you tell the same story five times, it’s true.” Unlike Reagan, Obama doesn’t invent or fantasize. But he has trouble telling even some true stories five times — and telling them well — which is why he now has to resell the health care bill more than nine months after he signed it.

Reagan’s talents also included an ability to pick adversaries and hammer them relentlessly — without losing his cool — whether air-traffic controllers or the “evil empire.” Though Obama ultimately stopped vilifying the Bush administration for the economic disaster he inherited, Reagan never backed off bashing the Democrats and the 30-year Great Society “binge” for the fiscal woes of his America. Reagan got away with it because he never sounded like a whiner, and because he paired his invective with an optimism that bleached out any pettiness. A former Democrat, after all, he wisely chose F.D.R. as his political model.

That pitch-perfect showmanship, timing and salesmanship (his father was a salesman) were in Reagan’s résumé and bones. Obama doesn’t have that training, but he was a great communicator when it came to selling his own story in the campaign, heaven knows. He has rarely rekindled that touch in the White House — even during his December run of good fortune. His recent Congressional victories should not obscure the reality that, the tax-cut deal notwithstanding, he still disappeared at key moments when he should have led the charge.

Nowhere was he more AWOL than in the battle over aiding 9/11 emergency workers poisoned by the toxic debris at ground zero. Supporting a bill to reward brave Americans who paid with their health or their lives to serve others was tantamount to voting for the flag — a far more patriotic gesture than, say, reading aloud the Constitution. Yet Republicans in Congress caricatured it as a “slush fund” inviting “abuse, fraud and waste” (Lamar Smith of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) and “an expansive new health care entitlement program” (Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma). All 41 Republicans present in the Senate voted to block its passage while giving top priority to protecting tax cuts for the superrich. But rather than lead this easily winnable battle from uncontestable high ground, the White House remained largely silent, releasing only a written statement of support for the bill. The president never spoke publicly about it at all.

Obama didn’t have to demagogue the issue. He didn’t have to pitch a fit, as Anthony Weiner, the New York congressman, did for the benefit of C-Span cameras last summer. But it’s hard to imagine a more clear-cut teaching moment for a president to explain how intransigent right-wing ideology can violate fundamental American values of fairness and sacrifice. Instead, that job fell to others, which is why a novice senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and a late-night television star, Jon Stewart, could be found taking a victory lap over the bill’s passage on “The Daily Show” last week: they had stepped into the leadership vacuum left by Obama.

With his vastly reduced Capitol Hill cohort, Obama’s next two years are going to be less about pushing bills through Congress and more about pushing the presidency to the max. Win or lose, he’ll have to be more vocal in other fights, starting with immigration reform, where bedrock American principles of fairness are at stake. He’ll also have to finally find a unifying story to unite his economic philosophy, for if he never defines Obamanomics, his opponents will keep labeling it as tax-and-spend socialism instead.

And surely he must start wielding Reaganesque humor at the rapidly thickening blizzard of Tea Party hypocrisies. A “there you go again” — or two or three or four — will come in handy when mocking antigovernment zealots like the newly elected Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, who last week repeatedly ducked Diane Sawyer’s simple inquiry as to whether she would end federal farm subsidies (her family farm has collected some $775,000) now that she’s in Washington.

In the 1984 election, The Times’s exit poll found that by far the single biggest factor in Reagan’s landslide was the perception that the economy had turned around and that unemployment, though still high (7.2 percent), was falling rapidly. The second most important factor was leadership. A September poll had showed that Americans gave Mondale more credit for caring about people and for having a vision for America’s future. But the perception that Reagan was a strong leader, “forceful” rather than “cautious,” trumped all else. He was affable, sure, and made compromises to get legislation on the scoreboard, but he was not a bipartisan wuss. Voters rewarded his campaign slogan, “Leadership That’s Working,” even though his Morning-in-America agenda was a Madison Avenue homily, not a program for leading America anywhere specific in his second term.

At this point the speed of our own halting recovery is not in the president’s hands. The ability to remake his style of leadership still is. But that makeover can come only from him, not from old Clinton hands in a reshuffled West Wing. Without it, the miracle of his Christmas resurrection could be over by Easter.