After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency changed. As he put it in 1943, “Dr. New Deal” had to be replaced by “Dr. Win the War.” It was a colossal policy switch, but it wasn’t an extreme makeover politically. He was still the same FDR, and the public understood the need for change.
It saved his presidency. As President Obama’s former economic adviser, Larry Summers, said recently, “Never forget … that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.”
Many economic historians, such as Robert Higgs, disagree with Mr. Summers on the substantive point about World War II being good for the economy. But Mr. Summers was absolutely right politically about the New Deal and about the fact that the war saved FDR’s bacon.
Mr. Obama desperately needs to make a similar change but, thank goodness, providence isn’t offering any Pearl Harbors these days.
It’s very hard to make a new first impression, particularly for presidents seeking another term. Of course, if things are going well, you don’t need to reinvent yourself. Dwight Eisenhower stayed the same reassuring duffer-in-chief throughout the relatively tranquil 1950s.
In 1972, Richard Nixon rode a seemingly good economy and foreign policy success to a landslide re-election victory - 60 percent of the popular vote. Ronald Reagan stayed Reagan in 1984 amid a surging economy.
George W. Bush made a switch, from Mr. Compassionate Conservative to President Dead-or-Alive. But, like FDR with Pearl Harbor, his political task was the result of an unprovoked attack and the wars that followed.
A major strain of conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that Mr. Obama can win re-election by “tacking to the center.” Bill Clinton, who famously “triangulated” his way into a second term, is the model. Theoretically, Mr. Obama can do the same thing by leveraging a “centrist” debt-limit deal against his base, winning back the independents and moderates who delivered his decisive victory in 2008.
The problem, as many have pointed out, is that Mr. Obama can’t borrow the Clinton or Reagan playbooks because the economy is just too rotten. A rising economic tide gives presidents room to reinvent themselves. By the spring of 1995, the U.S. economy was averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.
But the bad economy isn’t the only hurdle. Mr. Clinton’s race to the center was a return to form. He beat George H. W. Bush by running as a centrist Southern Democrat who supported the death penalty, wanted to “end welfare as we know it” and was eager to zing his own base if it would earn him a second look from Reagan Democrats and others disillusioned with the party of McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis. His was a restoration, not a transformation.
Even after getting his debt-limit deal, Mr. Obama is left in a double bind. He desperately needs to make a new first impression because he cannot successfully run on a terrible economy, an unpopular health care plan and a very confusing foreign policy at a time when most Americans are burned out on foreign policy. But absent external events he cannot plan on, there’s no way to credibly reinvent himself or even reintroduce himself as the guy who ran in 2008.
He can’t revive his claim to be a post-partisan bridge-builder, can he? His first two years were as partisan as any we’ve seen in a generation. He certainly can’t run on “yes we can!” optimism, particularly not after he’s shown his willingness to force a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” in the words of Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, down the throats of his base. He cannot run as a gung-ho fiscal hawk, not when he contributed so much to the deficit. And he will never outbid the GOP nominee on shrinking government. If he tries, his base stays home.
Barring some tragic event outside his control, it’s very hard to see what the man can do. He’s got no place he can go, but he can’t stay where he is.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.