The Obama administration has encouraged something of a lovefest between President Obama and Ronald Reagan. Gauzy stories about how highly our current president esteems the 40th -- along with equally gauzy commentary about how these two share a talent for appealing to a wide swath of the American public -- have been all over the news.
Time Magazine put a ribbon on the meme with its "Why Obama Loves Reagan" cover package about the Obama/Reagan "bromance," with no less an eminence than presidential historian Douglas Brinkley proclaiming that Obama is "approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion."
Obama's praise of Reagan leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who thought Reagan's geniality was largely an act that masked eight years of making the rich richer and the poor poorer, including wasting untold billions on a crony-rewarding military spending binge.
But Obama seems to have overlooked Reagan's greatest gift and most effective tactic: the ability to declare that virtually any triumph that happened while he was president, and even after, was his own; and that whatever went wrong was the fault of big government liberals.
The Romans called this post hoc ergo propter hoc -- literally, "after the fact, therefore because of the fact." When I was in college, my logic professor called this the Rooster Fallacy: The rooster crows when the sun comes up, so the rooster thinks he made the sun come up.
That was Ronald Reagan. Think about it. When the economy tanked shortly after the introduction of Reaganomics, Reagan blamed liberal policies; when the economy recovered -- as it naturally would have -- he bragged that Reaganomics was the catalyst. On foreign policy, though the Russian economy was collapsing -- and would take with it the Soviet Union -- Reagan misspent billions on weapons programs that benefited his contributors and dramatically increased the size and power of the federal government, particularly the executive branch. Yet by some political alchemy, all these years later he's probably best known as the guy who shrank government, grew the economy, and "won the Cold War."
President Obama can learn from that, beginning with staking out the Middle East as his Cold War. No matter what happens in the future, he can declare a historic victory right now, based on his June 2009 Cairo speech, in which, with Reaganesque overtones, he affirmed the Arab community's desire for freedom and democracy. That talk was so spot on that Dan Rather recently told CNN's Piers Morgan that it was the catalyst for the democratic uprisings now sweeping the region.
In the absence of such a declaration, Obama risks surrendering the narrative to such loonies as the conservative website that linked to the Rather interview, but only to add the damning headline, "Dan Rather: When Egypt Goes Completely Radical, Blame Obama."
As for the economy, it's still in awful shape, but more jobs are being produced than at any time in the last three years, and unemployment dipped below 9% last week and will likely continue to fall. That news suggests taking another page from the Reagan playbook: The president needs to speak more optimistically about the economic future and be more emphatic -- in deed as well as word -- about his ability to help shape it. A good start would be to fight for the reversal of the recently enacted changes in the estate tax laws, which further favor the rich and, by lowering Federal tax revenues, will only increase the deficit Republicans say they're so concerned about.
Given the rush of events in the Middle East, and Libya in particular, if President Obama doesn't project an aura of success, Reagan worshippers will swoop in and claim the credit for their hero. As long ago as 1986, Caspar Weinberger teed up that assertion: asked whether Qaddafi was "losing his grip" on Libya after Reagan ordered a bombing raid there, Reagan's defense secretary observed, "There may well be some of the people ... unhappy with him [Qaddafi] who are trying to take matters into their own hands. In other words, people who have read the lesson that this attack was supposed to administer."
That was 25 years ago. If President Obama doesn't declare victory in the Middle East now, Reagan's ghost surely will.