President Obama can mount a comeback from his midterm "shellacking" a la Reagan, Rick Perlstein argued in a January 23 article.
But the Newsweek contributor wasn't so much thinking of Obama adopting Reaganesque policies so much as mimicking the late president's political style.
For example, Perlstein lamented that Obama seemed chastened just after the midterms, whereas President Reagan was confident, almost defiant in November 1982 (emphases mine):
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.” Both utterances would have been foreign to Ronald Reagan’s tongue. For him, the American people were always strong and united, and ahead in the race—that is, unless their strength, unity, and drive were sullied by his foolish and recalcitrant liberal opposition.
Those are valid observations, but Perlstein's argument all but assumes that the economy will almost certainly recover under Obama much as it did during Reagan's first term without any consideration that Reagan's tax and deregulatory policies had something to do with the economic recovery and/or that Obama's policies may hamstring it:
In recent years conservatives have been excoriating Obama for “blaming” his predecessor whenever he made the mild observations that he inherited a bad economy. Reagan had no such compunction, blaming his predecessor in often cruel and mocking ways. The Carter budget he inherited, he said, was full of outright distortions. The “midnight regulations” the lame-duck Congress was said to have imposed didn’t help; nor did the “poor management” of the Carter Treasury Department.
He carried the theme into the fall campaign by charging “that the sour economy is the fault of former president Jimmy Carter.” “Some diehards are now declaring the present recession was caused by our program,” he said. “May I just point out, we had the recession before we got the program. But the voices keep right on carping.” Obviously, that didn’t work well that November. But by sticking to his guns, he’d etched blame for the bad times in the public mind—setting himself up for credit when things turned around.
There’s nothing intrinsically right wing about explaining complex economic processes in easily digestible ways; FDR—Reagan’s rhetorical role model—did it all the time. Reagan’s story was very simple: “Our government is too big, and it spends too much.” So he would reverse everything Carter had done (except when Congress wouldn’t let him—and then the problems were Congress’s fault, weren’t they?). Then, lo and behold, the economy recovered.
Perlstein closed his piece by counseling Obama to "create handy villains" and "be a divider" to ensure his political viablity in 2012. marveling at Reagan's political magic:
Staking out firm ideological ground, and being perceived as a uniter, not a divider, are not incommensurate tasks. Ronald Reagan proved they can be strongly reinforcing. It is an alchemical task—one of consummate leadership. How did he do it? By projecting strength—a strength that blinded the public to the contradictions at hand. Can Obama find a way to pull that off? If so, the most popular politician in the country may well win a safe reelection. But an Age of Obama? It may be too late for that.
In other words, according to Perlstein, the economy recovered in the early-to-mid '80s not because and perhaps in spite of Reagan's policies, but the important thing is that the Gipper knew how to dazzle, even "blind" the public to what he was doing.
Even when the media praise the Gipper they still don't get that his appeal extends far beyond his style to his substance: common sense conservatism that works when it's given a chance and staunchly defended.