What Would Ronnie Do?

By Perlstein, Rick | Newsweek, January 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

What Would Ronnie Do?


Perlstein, Rick, Newsweek


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

Obama starts the second half of his term with a set of obstacles similar to those that bedeviled Ronald Reagan. On Reagan's centennial, the president is looking to the past for inspiration.

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."

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. …

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