hen asked two years ago for a historical analogy to his campaign for president, Barack Obama gave a surprising answer: Ronald Reagan. The Gipper, he said, "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." That comment was widely portrayed as a calculated dig at Hillary Clinton. But in his new book The Audacity to Win (considered by editor Charles Homans in "The Party of Obama"), Obama campaign manager David Plouffe reveals that Obama’s high command did indeed study the similarities between their candidate and Reagan. "Like Obama, Reagan was an outsider criticized for his lack of Washington experience and sometimes accused of offering more sizzle than steak," writes Plouffe. The campaign team reasoned that Obama could decisively dispel such perceptions the way Reagan had, with a strong performance in the presidential debates, and they turned out to be right.
Over the past year, Obama has reportedly become more and more convinced of, and reassured by, the parallels between himself and the fortieth president. "He thinks he is Reagan in reverse," notes Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, "a patient, genial game changer for the ages." The parallels are indeed hard to miss. Both men took the oath of office amid worst-since-the-Depression recessions, handed to them by administrations widely considered to have been ineffectual. As a result, both were able to pass major pieces of legislation that represented ideologically bold breaks with the past. But both also ended their first year weakened by sagging poll numbers driven by high unemployment. So as we approach Obama’s first State of the Union address, it’s worth looking at how Reagan handled the same task, with the confidence that Obama and his people are, too.
That 1982 speech is remembered for a story Reagan told of an invited guest named Lenny Skutnik who had rescued a plane crash victim from the icy waters of the Potomac, pioneering the now-obligatory everyday-hero-in-the-audience segment of the State of the Union. But rereading the rest of the speech, what is most striking is its tone, which is much less sunny and triumphant than we remember Reagan. The typical dramatic center of these addresses is the moment the president reports that "the state of our union is strong," or similar words. But Reagan offered what’s probably the most subdued variation on the theme in history, promising that "in the near future the state of the Union and the economy will be better—much better—if we summon the strength to continue on the course."
What’s also noticeable is the speech’s wonkiness. In place of grand rhetoric are long didactic passages on the connections between government spending, tax rates, inflation, money supply, regulations, entitlements, "categorical grant programs," and so forth. The effect was deliberate, says Tony Dolan, who wrote the speech. "Reagan had to prove he could do policy," Dolan told me recently, and because the president’s conservative initiatives were largely new to the American public, he had the burden of explaining "how all the policy pieces fit together."
The speech barely slowed the decline in Reagan’s poll numbers, which turned around only when the unemployment rate did. But it succeeded in framing the recession as the logical consequence of decades of liberal policy—and portraying conservative policy as the logical alternative. In so doing it laid down a marker: if the economy turned around, Reagan could claim that his conservative ideas were the reason. Now, not everyone would agree that the prosperity that did, in fact, follow, validated conservative economic theory. One could easily argue—I would in fact argue—that Reagan’s tax-cuts-plus-massive-defense-spending agenda acted as a classic Keynesian stimulus. But no matter: the fact that the economy responded as Reagan predicted gave credence to his ideas for a generation. It’s a little like the home run Babe Ruth hit in game three of the 1932 World Series: it’s the one we most remember because he pointed to where it would land.
Unlike Reagan, Obama doesn’t have to prove his wonk credentials. And with the unemployment rate having crested (we hope), he may be freer to be more rhetorically uplifting. But he should follow Reagan’s example and define, more clearly than he has so far, what his theory of economic growth is and how it differs from his conservative predecessors’. He should explain to the American people how the different parts of his agenda—the stimulus spending, the TARP funds, and the efforts to reform health care, education, the energy sector, and financial markets—all fit together and how, over time, he expects them to improve America’s economic fundamentals. Of course, if the economic fundamentals don’t improve, nothing he says in the speech will matter. But if in a few years the economy is back on its feet, then the speech will have helped lay the intellectual groundwork not just for the recovery, but for a new governing philosophy with the potential staying power of Reaganomics.