The Sunday Take

Reagan's first term offers measuring stick for Obama

President Ronald Reagan survived a deep recession, low approval ratings and an unfavorable midterm election to easily win reelection.
President Ronald Reagan survived a deep recession, low approval ratings and an unfavorable midterm election to easily win reelection. (Dennis Cook/associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Throughout this long year, President Obama's advisers have sometimes looked to Ronald Reagan for comparison and inspiration. If the Gipper could survive a deep recession, low approval ratings and an adverse midterm election in his first two years and win reelection handily two years later, then Obama could easily do the same, they reason.

Obama's presidency has looked like Reagan's in some broad ways. Both men succeeded unpopular presidents of the opposite party. Both offered big and bold plans -- Reagan with massive tax cuts, Obama with a massive stimulus package and national health care -- that set the country in a new direction. Reagan's goal was to shrink government. Obama's efforts have enlarged government.

Both presidents were forced by events that preceded their elections to contend with economies in serious trouble. Both saw the unemployment rate rise sharply during their first two years in office -- under Reagan, the rate hit 10.8 percent by November 1982 -- and both saw their approval ratings decline as the numbers of jobless grew.

For much of this year, Obama and his team have taken some solace from the fact that Reagan's approval ratings were even lower at comparable points in his presidency. That is no longer the case. In the past week, Obama has hit a new low in his approval rating, according to Gallup's daily tracking. It now stands at 42 percent, virtually identical to Reagan's in August 1982. (Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter dipped below 40 percent during their second year in office.)

Republicans suffered significant losses in the House in Reagan's first midterm election, giving Democrats an even larger majority. Most Democrats are braced for a similarly bad night this November.

Vice President Biden told the Democratic National Committee on Friday that Democrats would retain their House and Senate majorities. "If it weren't illegal, I'd make book on it," he joked. Every independent projection, however, shows the House -- and possibly the Senate -- clearly in jeopardy at this point.

What then for Obama?

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University and author of "The Disappearing Center," said the most important thing to remember about a midterm election is that it indicates nothing about future elections.

"It doesn't predict either the next presidential election or the next congressional election," he said. "We won't really know what may happen in 2012 until we get into 2012."

Whatever the outcome in November, and whatever interpretation is placed on the results, the real question for Obama is what happens to the economy afterward. On that measure, comparisons with Reagan are discouraging for the current president.

The economy rebounded significantly during Reagan's third and fourth years in office. The unemployment rate declined, although not spectacularly. It was still at 8.3 percent in December 1983 and at 7.5 percent in August 1984 as the general election campaign was entering its final months.

More important, however, was the rise in gross domestic product, which experts say is a far more reliable political indicator. The U.S. economy experienced a growth surge in 1983 and 1984 that helped set the stage for Reagan's gauzy "Morning in America" ads and prepared the ground for his huge reelection victory.

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