Once upon a time, Barack Obama understood the power of a good story. His campaign mantras — “Yes we can” and “Change we can believe in” — inspired voters, especially young people, blacks and Latinos, and propelled him into the White House. But once in office, Obama lost the thread of the plot. He abandoned his original message and embraced compromise and bipartisanship rather than pushing for dramatic change. That narrative hasn’t gotten far with a recalcitrant Congress, especially Republicans, who have their own high concept to pitch: Just say no to Obama.
In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Obama will undoubtedly look to the Hollywood left for money and endorsements, but he would be equally well served to look to the Hollywood right — especially the legacy of Ronald Reagan — for lessons about how to tell his story and the importance of sticking to it and reinvigorating it when governing became problematic.
From Louis B. Mayer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood right has told a simple but compelling story of American triumphalism: The United States is the greatest nation in the world.
Mayer’s Hardy family films, the most successful series in MGM history, promised Depression-era audiences that anything was possible so long as they subscribed to what he viewed as the holy trinity of American life: family, God and country. Several decades later, reporters attributed former actor George Murphy’s surprise election to the Senate in 1964 to his successful use of Mayer’s optimistic story line. Murphy, a Democrat turned Republican, “makes you feel good,” explained one journalist. “He has no doubts, and your own doubts can be resolved.”
Schwarzenegger employed his own heroic narrative in his gubernatorial campaign: He was a caring and compassionate populist who promised to tell Democratic and Republican politicians, “Do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you are hasta la vista, baby.”
Few citizens, history shows, want to hear a Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty or Sean Penn point out what is wrong with the United States. They want to be reassured that in frightening times, their leaders can defeat all foes and deliver an essentially happy ending.
Reagan in particular understood this need and created a story line that was effective for campaigning and governing. During his gubernatorial bid in 1966, and his presidential run in 1980, he drew upon a simple narrative that he repeated over and over again — one aimed not only at the Republican faithful but at independent voters who could swing elections and provide the mandate needed for a conservative revolution in government. Reagan merged American triumphalism with messages of fear and reassurance: fear of communism and creeping federal socialism, and reassurance that he and determined conservatives could save the nation by defeating the Soviet Union and overturning the New Deal welfare state.
He campaigned for the presidency on a set of simple but powerful ideas: reduce taxes, return power to state and local government, and fight all enemies of America, foreign and domestic.
Once in office, Reagan ran into trouble when he abandoned his policy promises by raising taxes and increasing the size of the federal budget. Facing a tough reelection campaign, he revitalized his base by adding a new catchphrase that brilliantly restated his story line: “It’s Morning in America.” Reagan was victorious in 1984 in part because he shifted attention away from his broken promises and focused instead on the vision of a “happy ending” for America, a return to an imagined past of simpler, better days.
To be successful at winning and then governing during a second term, Obama needs to reconfigure his successful 2008 story line. It was, after all, a Democratic version of “Morning in America.” Like Reagan, he made citizens believe in the possibility of a better future. But unlike the former president, he insisted that change would come only by embracing an activist federal government that would work to better the lives of all Americans.
In 2012, Obama can learn from Reagan by steadfastly looking to a hopeful future rather than the disappointing past four years. He needs to re-engage his original promise of action. He recently pledged to be a “warrior for the middle class” — that has the right heroic ring to it, if he can demonstrate that he is a determined initiator rather than a weak conciliator.
But mostly, Obama needs to appeal to the imaginations, and even the fantasies, of the widest possible audience; he needs to remind the faithful and independents of what he told them in February 2008. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Can a restatement of his 2008 story line again win millions of votes, and can it help Obama govern more successfully in his hope for second term? Yes, it can. Poll after poll indicates that Americans want change they can believe in now more than ever. An effective narrative moves voters, and mobilized voters move Congress — as tea party supporters have shown and as Occupy Wall Street activists hope to show. Citizens did this with and for Reagan, and they can do it with Obama — if once again his story inspires them to believe, to act and to vote.
• Ross is a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.”