TIME’s MICHAEL SCHERER, in the forthcoming issue — ‘Can He Step Up His Game? Obama’s next move: if he can’t fix the economy, make sure the Republicans get the blame’: ‘In June, . . . White House chief of staff Bill Daley arranged a secret retreat for his senior team at Fort McNair . . . Historian Michael Beschloss went along as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone’s mind: How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment? The historian’s lecture provided a lift for Barack Obama’s team. No iron law in politics is ever 100% accurate, Beschloss told the group. Two Presidents in the past century — Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 — won re-election amid substantial economic suffering. Both used the same two-part strategy: FDR and Reagan argued that the country, though in pain, was improving and that their opponents, anchored in past failures, would make things worse. . . . The President’s aides, all but resigned to unemployment above 8% on Election Day, now see in Roosevelt and Reagan a plausible path to victory. They intend to make sure voters believe a year from now that their fortunes are improving, and they plan to persuade the American people that a Republican in the White House would be a step backward. . . . Obama will try to divert the public’s frustration with Washington toward his main enemy, the GOP.’
Bill Kristol explained the fallacies in this thinking yesterday afternoon, and I'd like to toss my two cents in as well.
Two enormous problems with this strategy. First, as Bill noted, the economy under Obama just does not compare to the economy under Reagan. As they say, let's go to the videotape!
The following graph compares relative change in private sector employment under Reagan and Obama. The employment level in each president's first month is set at 100, then we track how things improved or worsened thereafter.
Note that the dip in jobs during Reagan's tenure happened later than the dip in Obama's tenure, but even so the jobs picture under Reagan at this point in his tenure was already better than it is now with Obama. Note also that job growth exploded from this point forward under Reagan -- there's no reason to expect that during the rest of Obama's term.
How about real disposable income per capita? That's a great metric for answering the question, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
There's no comparison here. Real disposable income per capita was consistently better under Reagan than Obama, and just like jobs, growth in this metric really takes off during Reagan's third year on office. The most recent data for July showed that real disposable income per capita actually declined.
The second problem--and it's just as bad--is the notion that Obama's opponents, just like Reagan's and FDR's, are "anchored in past failures (and) would make things worse." This is just not going to work for Obama. Sure, all three presidents made some pretty big policy changes during their first term, but FDR's and Reagan's innovations were popular. What about Obama's?
The reality is that Obama has not taken the country forward, so arguing that, "a Republican in the White House would be a step backward" is simply not going to work.
Here's the bottom line: If the current trend continues, this election is not even going to be a close call. If it were held today, the president would lose by maybe 7 or 8 points. The economy stinks. The deficit is out of control. The country hates the president's top domestic achievement. It's darkness in America.
I know a handful of diehard Obamaphiles think the president can talk his way out of anything, but they're wrong. He can't talk his way out of this one. Period. If things don't turn around in the economy toot sweet, he'll be a one-termer.