Barack Obama 2012 = Ronald Reagan 1984?

October 5, 2012

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama drew a telling comparison between himself and former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Said Obama:

"I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times...I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."

Little did Obama know how closely his first term would mirror that of Reagan. Both men dealt with a struggling economy, a disastrous midterm election and a pervasive sense with some not-insignificant portion of the electorate that the promise they had voted for wasn't being delivered.

With the release of the September jobs report Friday, there's also a more positive comparison -- for Democrats -- between Reagan and Obama that now can be made.

Check out the similarities in the unemployment rate during the first four years (or so) of the terms of Reagan and Obama:

While Reagan dealt with a much more rapid rise (and fall) in the unemployment rate during his first term, the parallels -- particularly from the 34th month of the two presidencies on -- are somewhat remarkable.

To be clear: Even the most optimistic Democrats don't expect Obama in November to come anywhere near the 49-state, 525-electoral vote landslide that Reagan scored in 1984.

And, Republicans note that by September 1983 the economy was creating 1.1 million jobs a month while the country has lost 61,000 jobs since Obama was elected. They also point out that Reagan was more popular at this point in his first term than Obama is currently. (By mid 1984 Reagan's job approval rating was in the mid 50s in Gallup data; Obama's job approval in Gallup currently stands at 52 percent.)

All true. But, the trend line does suggest that just as Reagan was able to argue that his policies had begun to work to improve the economy in 1984 so too can Obama in 2012.  There's other evidence -- aside from the jobs report/unemployment rate -- of growing confidence in the economy; in an NBC- Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month, 57 percent of people said the economy was recovering while 37 percent of people said it wasn't.

Update 5:57 p.m.: The American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis weighs in, arguing that the drop in unemployment under Reagan was much more about job creation, while under Obama, it's been about attrition: "When President Obama took office, the LFP was 65.7% vs. 63.6% last month. ... When the unemployment rate fell sharply under Reagan over the same period — from 9.2% in September 1983 to 7.3% in September 1984 — (labor force participation) rose to 64.1% from 63.5%. Optimistic Americans were pouring into the job market — and finding jobs! The economy was booming."

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · October 5, 2012