Reportedly, Obama's speechwriters even studied Reagan's speeches for tips on how to frame the choice. They concluded, since Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter for the country's problems, Obama should do likewise with Bush. Reagan said Americans faced a choice between "going back" to the old policies and pressing ahead with new ones. Obama parroted the same line: "This is a choice between the policies that led us into the mess, or the policies that are leading out of the mess," Obama said in a campaign appearance for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "America doesn't go backwards, we go forwards."
Such "Reaganesque" rhetoric didn't save Democrats from a "shellacking" (to borrow Obama's word) at the polls (though in a decidedly mixed blessing the Democrats did hold on to Reid's seat). Obama lost more than twice as many seats in the House (63) as Reagan did and six in the Senate.
Tellingly, Obama explained away the electoral rebuke not on his policies but on his inability to communicate the truth to the public. It's funny how the supposedly greatest communicator since Reagan -- or Cicero, depending on who you listen to -- is always suffering from a communications problem.
And this points to the real reason why the Reagan parallel just doesn't work. As much as it may annoy Obama and his supporters to hear it, the reason why Reagan's rhetoric was effective is that voters believed it was matched to successful policies. Meanwhile many of Obama's top priorities -- health care reform, green energy, etc. -- have had, at best, a tangential connection to the economic recovery and arguably, as in the case of energy, they've made things worse. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has rightly pointed out that even Reagan's communications strategy didn't improve media coverage or his standing in public opinion polls. Reagan's popularity recovered with the economic recovery. (The media coverage, however, remained relentlessly hostile until a few years ago.)
In recent weeks, it seems that the White House has discovered that, barring an entirely unforeseen economic boom, the Reagan analogy is a non-starter for them. That spells an ironic challenge for Obama, because it probably means that he will have to run a base election whereby he galvanizes his core supporters and hopes red meat and turnout numbers will save him. In short, it means the president will be emulating George W. Bush's re-election strategy even as he pins all his problems on George W. Bush.
(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)