Inauguration 2013: Will President Obama's second term resemble Reagan's?

Inauguration Day gives President Obama a second chance that resembles President Reagan's in 1985. Reagan hoped to reform the tax code and reduce the deficit in his second term. Like Reagan, Obama will need communication skills to tackle challenges, especially the deficit.

Susan Walsh/AP
Members of the Lee University Festival Choir and PS 22 Chorus perform before the ceremonial swearing-in of President Obama at the Capitol on Inauguration Day Jan. 21. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. says that Mr. Obama 'should devote much of his remaining time to explaining – simply and directly – the magnitude of the economic problems ahead of us.'

As he celebrates his second inauguration, it's fair to ask: Can a two-term President Obama become the Democrats' Ronald Reagan – someone who, in Mr. Obama's words, "changed the trajectory of America"?

In some ways, this president's situation resembles that of President Reagan in 1985. In the Republican's first term, he faced double-digit unemployment and suffered a big midterm setback. Some pundits thought he would surely lose reelection.

But Reagan worked his way back into contention. With the aid of a less-than-stellar opponent (former Vice President Walter Mondale), he won reelection and Republicans held on to their Senate majority.

In his second term, Reagan hoped to reform the tax code and reduce the deficit, although his reelection campaign agenda was short on specifics.

This comparison may seem to bode well for the current chief executive, since we remember Reagan as a successful president. He restored optimism to America, won major tax cuts, and played a key part in bringing the cold war to a peaceful conclusion.

In his own first term, Obama also tried to change America's trajectory, but through a more activist government. Ideally, he'd like to follow health-care reform by revising immigration laws, strengthening gun control, and reducing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

But if a first term can be Christmas for a president, a second term can turn into a pile of broken toys. Administrations grow old, their ideas grow stale, and opponents grow bolder. That's where the Reagan analogy suggests difficulty.

With the notable exception of tax reform, Reagan's second term brought him a great deal of frustration on Capitol Hill. From enterprise zones to aid to Nicaraguan rebels, Congress resisted major Reagan initiatives. In 1986, Democrats retook control of the Senate and the Iran-contra scandal broke. The next two years were tough.

Ironically, first-term successes can create second-term problems. Reagan's tax cuts and the defense buildup increased the deficit, while cuts in social welfare spending led to accusations that he was waging war on the poor. Obama won enactment of a historic health-care law, but he may find that its implementation will require difficult and unpopular choices.

And there are differences between the two presidencies that do not work to Obama's advantage.

Whereas Reagan won a landslide reelection, Obama's popular-vote edge over Mitt Romney was 3.85 percent. Few House Republicans represent districts that Obama carried, and few congressional Democrats owe their election to him. If the 1984 election translated into scant political capital for Reagan, the 2012 race provides even less to Obama.

The Reagan years were hardly an era of partisan harmony. In 1984, Democratic House majority leader Jim Wright gave a floor speech accusing the president of misrepresenting meetings on deficit reduction, using the word "lie" eight times. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "The evil is in the White House at the present time." Harsh, partisan hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork – which ended in his rejection – left a stain on the nomination process.

Nevertheless, the White House was sometimes able to reach bipartisan legislative agreements, in part because Congress contained a fair number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Both groups are largely gone now, and the vital center has become no man's land.

For Obama, a harsher landscape is the backdrop to harder problems. Though deficits were large in the late 1980s, they are bigger today. Economic growth is more sluggish, and we are closer to the day when baby boomers will exhaust Social Security (30 years away) and Medicare that pays for hospital benefits (just 11 years).

So what can the president do? It will be hard for him to move his agenda without first tackling deficits and debt; and for that, he can put his rhetorical skills to work.

Like Reagan, Obama is a skilled communicator. He is more cerebral and professorial than Reagan, and he can turn that to his advantage.

Instead of staging partisan pep rallies (e.g., the cringe-making event that angered Republicans on the Hill and nearly ruined the "fiscal cliff" agreement) or offering soaring rhetoric (which is so four years ago), he should devote much of his remaining time to explaining – simply and directly – the magnitude of the economic problems ahead of us.

The wealthy are going to pay a higher tax rate, but it will not make much headway against the national debt. Neither will painless measures such as government reorganization. In his State of the Union message a couple of years ago, the president joked about the number of government agencies involved in regulating salmon. But such things account for a microscopic share of the budget. Getting off our unsustainable fiscal path requires tax increases or spending cuts – or both – that affect the middle class.

"It's math," the president has said on many occasions. OK, it's time for him to teach some budget math. In the style of a great math teacher, Jaime Escalante, he needs to stand and deliver.

If he can do that, he may find the way easier for everything else.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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