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Can Obama Emulate Reagan and Clinton -- and FDR?

4 years ago
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As a biographer of Ronald Reagan, I've been asked if Barack Obama can recover from the catastrophe of the midterm elections to win a second term, as President Reagan did in 1984 when he carried every state except Minnesota, plus the District of Columbia. In a post-election press conference after the Republicans won the House last week, Obama took note of what Reagan had done and also of the comeback by President Bill Clinton, who was reelected in 1996 two years after the GOP captured the House for the first time in 46 years. Obama might also have mentioned the president with whom he claims the greatest affinity, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who two years after significant midterm reversals in 1938 won an unprecedented third term in 1940.
We learned in school that a valid analogy is a comparison in which the essential similarities outweigh the essential differences. Do any of these comparisons measure up?
There are certainly a number of similarities. Talking of hope and change, all of these presidents won election in hard economic times with messages that stirred the electorate. All had congressional coattails of varying length. Reagan, the only Republican in the group, especially benefited when his party captured the Senate, which proved critical to his success. President Obama and President ReaganThree of the four presidents -- FDR, Reagan and Obama -- rallied public support for major measures they had advocated as candidates and were able to get these bills, or most of them, through Congress.
And all these presidents saw their popularity fade when their reach exceeded their grasp or when the economy responded slowly to their favorite nostrums. FDR became president at the bottom of the Great Depression with an unemployment rate of at least 25 percent. He undertook a series of experiments as part of his promised "New Deal for the American people." And he was re-elected in 1936, carrying every state except Maine and Vermont, but ran into trouble when the economy soured again in 1937 in the so-called "second Depression."
Angered that the Supreme Court had struck down a number of New Deal measures as unconstitutional, Roosevelt tried to expand or "pack" the Court and was accused of over-reaching. In the 1938 primary elections Roosevelt failed in an attempt to purge conservative Democratic senators who opposed his programs. In the general election, Republicans cut into huge Democratic congressional majorities by accusing FDR of hostility to business and of centralizing government.
Reagan never had a Republican majority in the House during his entire presidency. But in his first two years in the White House he cobbled together a working majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats on economic issues and pushed through his signature achievement, a major tax reduction. Reagan and his team had expected this to stimulate a stagnant economy, which instead sunk into a deep recession.
By the 1982 midterm elections the nation's jobless rate was 10.8 percent, more than a full point higher than now, and Reagan's approval ratings were lower than Obama's current ratings. Democrats gained only 25 House seats, about average for a midterm election, but this deprived Reagan of his working majority and his fortunes continued to sink. Internal White House polling in January 1983 found his approval rating at only 34 percent, and members of the inner circle were speculating that Reagan might not even seek a second term.
Clinton in 1994 was widely perceived as an unsuccessful president. His and Hillary Clinton's plan to overhaul the nation's health system had been demonized as "socialized medicine." It was presented so ineffectively that it did not even get a public congressional hearing. Clinton's approval percentages plunged from the high 50s to the low 40s. In the 1994 midterm elections he was upstaged by the House minority leader, Newt Gingrich, who launched the "Contract With America," with proposals drawn from Reagan's leftover wish list. In their effort to win control of the House, Republicans captured 54 seats and Gingrich became House speaker.
"History is written backward but lived forward," wrote the British historian C.V. Wedgwood. "Those who know the end of the story can never know what it was like at the time." We know now that the end of the story for Roosevelt, Reagan, and Clinton was very different from what it seemed it might be at the time of these midterm elections. All came back to win resounding victories with help from their opposition parties.
FDR won a third term in 1940 against Republican Wendell Willkie, who was an inspirational figure to many Americans but whose nomination had bitterly split the GOP between its internationalist and isolationist wings. Reagan won his second term against Walter Mondale, an orthodox and respected Democrat who nonetheless had to fight off a stiff challenge from "New Democrat" Gary Hart, who some observers thought might have given Reagan a tougher fight.
Clinton moved to the right after the 1994 midterms, embracing a popular welfare reform that had been pushed by Republicans and getting much of the credit for its passage. Gingrich self-destructed by shutting down the federal government in 1995. And Clinton went on to easily defeat the diffident Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in the 1996 election.
Which brings us to another similarity among the first three presidents that also could constitute an essential difference with Obama and render the comeback analogy defective. Although there were many other factors at work in their re-election, FDR, Reagan and Clinton all benefited from a robust economy.
In 1940 the American people were divided over whether to help Great Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany, but factories were already beginning to hum because of defense contracts that were turning the United States, in FDR's memorable phrase, into an "arsenal of democracy." FDR's critics never tire of saying that it was World War II rather than the New Deal that halted the Depression. The war and the economy on which it depended also ended Republican chances of defeating their hated adversary Roosevelt, who went on to win a fourth term as he completed his third.
In 1983, as the recession ended, the economy came roaring back with one of its best performances in U.S. history -- and Reagan's fortunes with it. Through most of 1983 and 1984 the U.S. economy grew by an astounding 7 percent. Economists still dispute how much the president's economic policies had to do with the Reagan Recovery. but there is no disputing the result. Reagan's reelection theme in 1984 was "Morning in America." It resonated with voters because there really was a new dawn.
Clinton in 1996 also enjoyed the benefits of a strong economy. Even more, he could and did boast of a balanced budget, a rare event since the New Deal. This balancing was made possible in part by the large cuts in military spending that could be made thanks to the the end of the Cold War, an achievement associated with Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. But Clinton's team was managing the economy, and the voters gave them credit.
Two years are an eternity in politics, but Obama's economic prospects do not look sanguine. Most economic forecasts envision a slow recovery with unemployment close to double digits for the next two years. Instead of running with the tailwind of a balanced budget, Obama will have to defend record deficits. The compromises Obama may have to make in extending all of the George W. Bush tax cuts (a subject he broached Saturday) due to expire at the end of 2010 will add mightily to these deficits.
I have great respect for President Obama and think his health care bill and many of his other policies are likely to be judged more favorably by history than they were by the 2010 electorate. But when people ask if Obama can "pull a Reagan" and roar back to re-election victory in two years, I respond with questions of my own. Tell me, I ask, the identity of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. And tell me also how fast the economy is growing and what the jobless rate will be. History is lived forward, and Obama's prospects depend on the answers to these questions.

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If you can't stand Obama now, just give him another two years, it's going to be laughable and a total waste at the same time.

November 13 2010 at 8:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Maybe clinton, Not Reagan.

November 13 2010 at 9:31 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Reagan ran up the credit card to win the Cold War. Clinton used it to get us laptops and cellphones. Who knows what Bush and Obama did.

November 10 2010 at 9:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not if you're the guy holding the nation's credit cards when payments come due.

November 10 2010 at 9:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Instead of focusing on 'emulating' his way to a second term, perhaps Obama should try less talk and more walk. America is clearly exhausted of all the daily speeches and talk about jobs and the economy with no discernable results. Talk dies not put food on our tables or a roof over our families' heads. This president needs to stay off the talk show circuit and at the WH and work hard for ALL Americans, not just liberals. Then let the cards fall where they may in 2012, as they will.

November 08 2010 at 1:53 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to catalogsplus's comment

He should follow in footsteps and follow his own drummer and to hell with the 'naysayers'. They are out to destroy his agenda and has promised to continue since day one. It was the party of no and filibusting and now it's 'no compromise'. He better pass bills and reforms while he can, before the first of the year then it's going to be stagnant until 2012.

November 10 2010 at 6:32 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

This president just doesn't get it, even after an election changed the face of the House as well as legislatures throughout the nation. He thinks its because we somehow don't understand all his hyped up speeches from the teleprompter. Compare him to FDR, Reagan and Clinton? he doesn't even appear on the horizon.

November 07 2010 at 9:53 PM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply

Obama's biggest mistake was the manner in which he got 'his' healthcare bill approved. He had closed door meetings with the democrats, leaving republicans out of any discussions. The bill was passed only after bribing a few senators with earmarks for their states. Obama could have been viewed in a favorable light, had he just listened to the republicans and had bipartison talks as he promised. As a result of his arrogance and shoving an expensive and unpopular health care overhaul through while forgetting the unemployment rate and failing economy. Now that the republicans are in control of the house, he wants bipartison talks? He dug his own grave. I do think the republicans need to take the high road, and while not compromising on the values that got them elected.

November 07 2010 at 9:49 PM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply

People, you just don’t get it. ( - In the first 19 months of the Obama administration, the federal debt held by the public increased by $2.5260 trillion, which is more than the cumulative total of the national debt held by the public that was amassed by all U.S. presidents from George Washington through Ronald Reagan. WE ARE IN TERRIBLE SHAPE PEOPLE! Who is going to pay for all of these problems? Foreclosure is at a record high. People are losing everything and living in cars. Why did this administration lend billions to trillions of dollars to these corrupt banks, which was to ‘aid’ the American people? All this worthless spending did, was add more corruption. This administration has admitted that more time should have been spent finding Americans jobs and less time on issues such as the health care bill which will put this country in a deeper hole. No jobs, no spending. No jobs, more forecloses. No jobs, higher cost of insurance – are you getting this? Unemployment is still on the rise. Millions more will lose there homes and insurance, leaving the health industry bankrupt. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that we need to focus on people working again! We need to control health care costs and outrageous mark-ups for prescription medication. FACT, someone will pay for all of this and it will be you and me. This administration only puts bandages on these issues and if we do not speak up, we will find this major infection will be untreatable. I bet Ronald Reagan is rolling over in his grave over what this administration is doing and spending. Look at the facts; and look beyond your nose or should I say your party. You’re not getting it! Obama will go down as the worst president in history and will be known as the only president who created a bankrupt country.

November 07 2010 at 9:43 PM Report abuse +19 rate up rate down Reply

Give em hell Obama just like they'll do to you.

November 07 2010 at 9:11 PM Report abuse -17 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mrspamalot's comment

That's a terrible attitude. Obama needs to be presidential and stop being a hyperpartisan. He is supposed to be president for all America, not just liberals. It's time he take his nose out of the clouds and start behaving like it.

November 07 2010 at 9:33 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply

It appears to me, Obummer is emulating Carter.

November 07 2010 at 9:03 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply

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