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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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