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.
And it saved his presidency. As President Obama's former economic advisor, 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 Summers on the substantive point about World War II being good for the economy. But Summers was absolutely right politically about the New Deal and about the fact that the war saved FDR's bacon.
President 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 reelection 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 war(s) that followed.
A major strain of conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that 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, 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 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.