Two recommendations for Barack Obama in advance of his Tuesday evening address: First, read Reagan. Second, prioritize talking points as follows:
1. The economy.
2-6. The economy.
7. The deficit (for Republicans and independents); health care (for Democrats).
8. Terrorism (for Republicans); education (for Democrats).
9-up. The economy.
Joking on that list, but just a little. We asked people in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll what priority they attach to various issues for Obama and Congress to address in the year ahead. The economy blew out other mentions as a “highest priority” item, cited by 72 percent, about as many as picked it last year. The deficit followed, at 50 percent, then health care and education, at 43 percent each.
But the choice depends, also, on the audience with which the president seeks to resonate. The deficit drops to fourth place as a top-priority issue for Democrats, behind the economy, health care and education. It’s a solid No. 2, by contrast, among Republicans and independents alike.
Indeed, while there’s bipartisan agreement on some issues, there are profound gaps on others. Fifty-four percent of Democrats call health care a top priority, vs. just 33 percent of Republicans (Speaker Boehner, take note). There’s nearly as big a gap in interest in education, again ranked much higher as a priority by Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, are 15 points more apt than their political opposites to call terrorism a top priority, and 12 points more likely to say the same about the deficit.
Then there’s the Ronald Reagan angle. Tied to coverage of his son Ron Reagan’s new memoir, it’s been pretty continuously misreported the past several weeks that Reagan was one of the most popular American presidents. Not so; his career job approval rating was smack-dab in the mid-range for postwar presidents, and highly partisan to boot. But he was very highly rated as a communicator.
That, plus the economic similarities between these presidents’ first two years in office, make Reagan’s State of the Union address of Jan. 25, 1983, a telling read. Unemployment was 10.4 percent; Reagan’s approval rating, a career-low 42 percent – a dozen points below Obama’s today. But the worst, as it turned out, was over, with the economy – and Reagan – poised for recovery.
“The state of our union is strong, but our economy is troubled,” Reagan began his speech. “For too many of our fellow citizens … this is a painful period. We must all do everything in our power to bring their ordeal to an end. It has fallen to us, in our time, to undo damage that was a long time in the making, and to begin the hard but necessary task of building a better future for ourselves and our children.”
Good enough counsel for Obama: Confront the problem and promise – but don’t overpromise – progress.
Reagan went on to urge Social Security reform (in which “no one’s payments will be reduced,” which is never bad politics). He sought to duck blame for the economy while proclaiming that he was fixing it: “The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper than most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing those problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted.”
He hailed low inflation and low interest rates. He declared: “America is on the mend.”
And he hit another chord, hammering the deficit in cold warrior terms: “The deficit problem is a clear and present danger to the basic health of our Republic,” Reagan declared. Further: “The Federal budget is both a symptom and a cause of our economic problems. Unless we reduce the dangerous growth rate in government spending, we could face the prospect of sluggish economic growth into the indefinite future. … To assure a sustained recovery, we must continue getting runaway spending under control to bring those deficits down.”
Reagan proceeded to unveil some specific deficit-cutting plans, including a yearlong freeze in federal spending on a range of domestic programs, and – surprising to recall, given his reputation today - a three-year “standby tax” of up to 1 percent of gross national product, to pay for deficit reduction.
The idea didn't go anywhere, but Reagan did. Soon he was riding a robust economic recovery, advancing to 53 percent approval four months after the speech, and a remarkable 63 percent 10 months after. He went on to cruise to a second term – and to the reputation, if not the reality, of being one of the most popular American presidents.