It was just a year ago that giddy Obama aides were starting to strut out an unorthodox re-election campaign model: Ronald Reagan. Like the Gipper in 1984, Obama aides said they planned to point to the bad economy the president inherited, how he made it better, and warn that going back to the other party's control would be an economic U-turn.
Well, a year later, with the economic recovery stalled and consumer confidence in the toilet, that bragging has quieted and now it's Republicans who are looking at a Reagan model—this one from 1980, when he overwhelmed the fumbling Jimmy Carter. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
The GOP theme started to emerge over the past month as polls found that while Americans disapprove of President Obama, they think he'll win re-election because the GOP field is lackluster. Quizzed about Obama's opponents, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took that issue on directly. "Let me say this about the thing about 'satisfied with the field,' " he said. "I'm reminded of what the Carter White House thought in '79 and '80: 'If they just nominate Reagan. He's too old, he's too extreme. We'll be just fine.' And the common view at that point was that it was a pretty bad field." Shifting to the present, he added: "I think one of these candidates is going to get on a roll, and they're going to start winning, and they're going to look a lot better."
Former Republican National Committee boss Mike Duncan also got into the debate. "I remember the 1980 campaign and I remember people saying Ronald Reagan couldn't be elected, and that it's a weak field," he said. "It's a perennial story." [Check out editorial cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Then there's 1996 and 2000 presidential candidate Sen. Lamar Alexander. "They always say that about the field. You could take seven Rhodes Scholars who could jump over tall buildings and run for president and the press would say, 'They are the seven dwarfs.' You're looking for superman, and superman or superwoman is already out there." He added: "If it's like 1980, we'll have a Republican president."
Craig Shirley, author of the acclaimed Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America, said that few really understood Reagan in 1980. "Carter and his people, like most everybody else in Washington, thought Reagan was an un-intellectual pushover," he said.
McConnell, meanwhile, has ginned up a motto to hit Obama with, along the lines of Reagan's 1980 question about whether Americans were better off after four years of Carter economics: "He made it worse."