Will Obama's Recovery Look Like Reagan's?

As everyone in politics struggles to discover the historical analogy that fits their preconception of what's going on, many Democrats have latched on to Ronald Reagan's first two years as a way of holding on to the hope that political equilibrium will restore itself naturally and President Obama will emerge after November in fairly good shape for re-election.

Superficially, Obama's first two years do bear resemblance to Reagan's --  really bad economy at first, but one that recovers slowly, with the majority party losing seats to an energized opposition party that becomes ideologically incapable of building a national governing coalition.

One theory as for how Reagan was successful is that he had a consistent message that conveyed that a) the bad economy wasn't his fault, and b) he had a plan for fixing it.  Thus, when things turned around, he was able to harness the wave of support and ride his way to an easy re-election. But as even the Obama White House concedes, getting this year's messaging right has been tough.
 
The presumed economic message would involve financial, education, health care, and energy reform as the foundation of longer-term prosperity. Is that too complicated to get across? Well, maybe. That's what Obama talks about. It's hard to imagine that if Democrats only found new words or new metaphors to use, that message would somehow be more digestable.

Or was it more about execution? Perhaps Obama has made too many forays into other issues, particularly in the realm of international affairs? He's managing two wars at once. Perhaps it was the failure to better design and manage the stimulus successfully that undercut the message in the first place.

Although Obama doesn't fake emotion, his team didn't quite understand how angry the bonus issue would make HIS voters. The collective impression conveyed by the administration's actions is that the government's actions benefited the people who caused the mess in the first place. Maybe that was inevitable, but the administration hasn't been able to shake that impression.

But then again, comparing Obama in 2010 to Reagan in 1982 is a-historical. The media environment is completely different. Process shapes policy more than ever, and this dynamic has become very easy for the average voter to see and comprehend. White Houses simply cannot "sell" messages or narratives in such a diffuse, ideologically polarized environment absent some sort of national catastrophe. 

As much as we venerate Reagan's communication skills, it's important to remember that the economy got better for him. That mattered, perhaps more than whatever Mike Deaver and company did to sell it. Reagan gets credit for good execution when all that really mattered was getting an economic recovery. In that case, Obama's re-election fate hinges on the unemployment rate in winter/spring '12, not so much about the messaging now.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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