Ironically, first-term successes can create second-term problems. Reagan's tax cuts and the defense buildup increased the deficit, while cuts in social welfare spending led to accusations that he was waging war on the poor. Obama won enactment of a historic health-care law, but he may find that its implementation will require difficult and unpopular choices.
And there are differences between the two presidencies that do not work to Obama's advantage.
Whereas Reagan won a landslide reelection, Obama's popular-vote edge over Mitt Romney was 3.85 percent. Few House Republicans represent districts that Obama carried, and few congressional Democrats owe their election to him. If the 1984 election translated into scant political capital for Reagan, the 2012 race provides even less to Obama.
The Reagan years were hardly an era of partisan harmony. In 1984, Democratic House majority leader Jim Wright gave a floor speech accusing the president of misrepresenting meetings on deficit reduction, using the word "lie" eight times. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "The evil is in the White House at the present time." Harsh, partisan hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork – which ended in his rejection – left a stain on the nomination process.
Nevertheless, the White House was sometimes able to reach bipartisan legislative agreements, in part because Congress contained a fair number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Both groups are largely gone now, and the vital center has become no man's land.
For Obama, a harsher landscape is the backdrop to harder problems. Though deficits were large in the late 1980s, they are bigger today. Economic growth is more sluggish, and we are closer to the day when baby boomers will exhaust Social Security (30 years away) and Medicare that pays for hospital benefits (just 11 years).
So what can the president do? It will be hard for him to move his agenda without first tackling deficits and debt; and for that, he can put his rhetorical skills to work.