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FDR, Reagan . . . Obama?

The use and abuse of history.

12:07 PM, Sep 1, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Time's Michael Scherer reports that, 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 re­election 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."

 Morning Jay: Obama Will Have Reelection Troubles With This Economy

When FDR took office in March of 1933, unemployment, it's estimated, was running at about 25 percent. In November 1936, it was down to about 17 percent. GDP growth during FDR's first term seems to have run at about 7 percent per year.

Under Reagan, unemployment first went up from 7.5 percent figure in January 1981, peaking at 10.8 percent at the end of 1982. In the last two years of his first term, it declined rapidly, reaching 7.2 percent on Election Day 1984. GDP growth in Reagan's first term averaged about 3 percent a year.

When Barack Obama took over, unemployment stood at 7.8 percent. It's now 9.1 percent. And GDP growth under Obama has so far been running at about 1 percent a year.

The bottom line: Obama's economic record is unlikely to look anything like that of Roosevelt's or Reagan's.

But if Michael Beschloss's analogy provided a lift for the Obama team, that's great. They undoubtedly needed a little cheering up. The rest of us can look forward to being cheered up in November 2012 by the change in the Oval Office we've been waiting for.

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