"Do you think the Democrats will be in power for the next generation?" That was the question that I posed to my students on the Wednesday and Thursday after the 2008 election. It had been an historic race and I had decided that it was worthwhile to put aside the class material for a week to talk about it. I even prepared six pages of charts and graphs to guide our discussion. But the resolution to this particular debate was pretty clear to me. Everything I knew about political science, from the regularities of midterm loss to the patterns of the public mood, told me not to bet on it. Some students disagreed. Tuesday certainly seemed to give us our answer. Thus the question I would ask my section this week would be "How can President Obama bounce back?" Some look to Clinton's example for guidance but a number of observers have also pointed to President Reagan's experience as a fitting parallel. Both Reagan and Obama took office as the successors to discredited opposition presidents. Both inherited troubled economies that had not recovered by the midpoint of their term; unemployment in November of 1982 was 10.8 percent—it's 9.6 percent today. Both had won early legislative victories—Reagan on the budget and taxes, Obama on health care and financial reform—and yet both were faced with dangerously low approval ratings. Reagan's approval in November of 1982 was 42 percent. Obama's average approval rating today is about 45 percent. Of course Reagan's fortunes dramatically improved. In 1984 he finished just 4,000 votes shy of winning all 50 states. So how did he do it? In light of the contextual similarities, it would seem that Obama could learn a lot from Reagan. In particular, three lessons loom large. Lesson #1: Don't Be Afraid to Change Course. Today, it is common among both his admirers and his detractors to think of Reagan as a rigid ideologue. That isn't actually true. In 1981, Reagan prodded Congress into passing the largest tax cut in American history. But in 1982, confronted by a worsening recession and a widening deficit, Reagan sold the country on the largest tax increase to date. In fact, Reagan would support additional tax increases on payroll in 1983 and on various business enterprises in 1984 and 1986. Likewise, the lifelong cold warrior who coined the phrase the "evil empire" was able to sense an opening in the USSR during his second term and struck a meaningful arms reduction treaty in 1987. To date, Obama has not demonstrated this type of adaptability. The public has clearly called for strong action on jobs and the deficit. The president has not yet adjusted his priorities. Lesson #2: Focus Your Agenda. Reagan came into office with a limited set of reasonable goals. For the first term, he was fixated on three main objectives: cutting taxes, reducing spending, and building up the military. In his second term, his one major domestic initiative was a tax code overhaul. Not coincidentally, he accomplished all of this. Obama, in contrast, has had far too many balls in the air at once. At the same time, he has pressed Congress on health care, financial regulation, climate change, immigration, the stimulus, etc. The American system is explicitly designed to frustrate such widespread ambition. As a consequence of pushing for so much, it looks like Obama has accomplished much less than he actually has. Lesson #3: Be More Personable. Reagan was comedian-in-chief. Accused of being lazy, he quipped, "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?" In 1984 as he countered insinuations that he was too old, Reagan promised that he was "not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale was 56. And for all those economists criticizing his economic policy, Reagan responded, "You know economists—they're the sort of people who see something works in practice and wonder if it would work in theory." Reagan also displayed his emotions. The way he reacted to tragedies like the Challenger explosion was genuine, natural, and helped him forge a lasting bond with the public. Obama struggles with this aspect of the presidency. If he is going to go on "The Daily Show," it's not the place to be grim and defensive. And when dealing with something like the BP oil spill, he shouldn't be afraid to show some feeling. In the end, 2010 is like 1982. But if Obama wants 2012 to be anything like 1984, he needs to change. In Tuesday's election, voters held the Democrats accountable for their dissatisfaction. Columbia students should pay close attention over the next two years to see if the Republicans—and Obama—can do any better. Because ultimately it's you, as always, who will determine who will govern for that next generation. The author is a doctoral candidate in political science. His research focuses on how presidents advance their agendas by means of the strategic use of religious rhetoric and symbolism. He has been a teaching assistant for Introduction to American Politics for the past three years.
Columbia Spectator Staff