Can Obama win in 2012 if the economy is still down? Ask FDR.
Getting elected to the presidency is difficult; getting reelected is harder; getting reelected when the economy is dragging is nearly impossible. In American history, only one president has won a second term when the economy was in dire shape: Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1936. This bleak record would seem to bode ill for President Obama as he looks toward 2012 across a clouded economic horizon.
But Roosevelt's exception to the historical rule leaves some hope for Obama and his supporters. Despite an unemployment rate above 15 percent - compared with less than 10 percent today - Roosevelt won 61 percent of the popular vote and swamped Republican Alf Landon of Kansas by the widest Electoral College margin in American history: 523 to 8.
Of course, Roosevelt held some strong cards, not all of which Obama enjoys. First, his party commanded large majorities in both houses of Congress throughout his first term: Democrats outnumbered Republicans more than two to one in the House after the 1932 elections, and in the Senate by only a bit less. They increased their majorities in both houses in the 1934 midterm contests. Not every Democrat endorsed everything Roosevelt did; Southern conservatives, in particular, disliked aspects of the New Deal. But when Roosevelt asked something of Congress, he usually got it.
As a result, the record of accomplishment he took into the 1936 campaign was breathtaking, if controversial. By then, the New Deal had restructured America's banking industry, remodeled the farm sector, extended unemployment relief and jobs programs and woven a social safety net for ordinary Americans.
Obama's record is less impressive, largely because Democratic majorities have been thinner, initially disposing the president to consider Republican objections to such signature reforms as the health-care overhaul and enabling the GOP to stymie him on energy and the environment. Tuesday's elections, which delivered the House to the Republicans, have made matters worse for Obama. For the rest of his term, he will find himself in a far different position than the first-term Roosevelt: He will be in opposition to Congress, rather than in charge of it.
Second, Roosevelt's 1936 victory showcased a political style quite different than Obama's. FDR had boxed with bare knuckles from the start of his first term. Although his 1932 inaugural address is remembered today for its soothing assurance that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Roosevelt's contemporaries focused on the bellicose tone of the rest of the speech, in which the new president blamed Wall Street and its Republican sponsors for the Great Depression.
"The rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence," Roosevelt said. ". . . Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men."
Roosevelt maintained the offensive throughout his first term, and in the campaign of 1936 he hit harder than ever, blaming "economic royalists" who wanted to restore the old regime of wealth and power. Their cronies had targeted him for their special venom, Roosevelt said. "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me." But he would stand fast. "And I welcome their hatred."
Many of Obama's supporters wish he would emulate Roosevelt's combativeness. They have lamented his efforts at bipartisanship, which yielded him little, they say, and cost him the political momentum of 2008. But Obama has generally ignored such counsel. Some of this difference owes to diverging temperaments and personal styles; where Roosevelt relished getting angry in public, Obama apparently does not. But it also reflects Obama's more precarious position with respect to Congress. While Roosevelt's majorities were so strong that he could afford to make enemies of his political opponents, if Obama had begun by treating congressional Republicans as enemies, he probably would have gotten even less in the way of reform than he has.
Yet political styles can change. With the Republicans soon to control the House, and many of them outspoken in their determination to bring him down, Obama may have no choice but to take off the gloves. (In this regard he might also borrow from Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, who, after losing Congress to the Republicans in 1946, railed against the "do nothing" legislature and eked out an upset victory in 1948.) Obama proved a brilliant campaigner in 2008; he may show the same talent, modified for new circumstances, in 2012.
Third, Roosevelt benefitted from an unexpectedly weak Republican candidate in 1936. Alf Landon was a son of the heartland and the only Republican governor to survive the Democratic tidal wave of 1934. His friends called him "the Kansas Coolidge," and with an entrepreneurial background and moderate views on social issues, he seemed a credible challenger to Roosevelt and the New Deal. But despite heavy funding from business and the support of the Republican press - Chicago Tribune owner Robert McCormick ordered the paper's switchboard operators to remind callers of the dwindling number of days left to save America from Roosevelt's tyranny - Landon found himself unable to match Roosevelt's experience, verve and charisma, and his campaign never got on track.
Obama's opponent in 2012 has yet to be chosen, of course, but the absence of a Republican front-runner and the confusion caused by the rise of the tea party movement create the possibility that the Republicans might wind up with a modern Alf Landon. Obama can't count on it, but he certainly can hope.
Finally, Roosevelt had good timing. He entered the presidency a full three years into the worst economic disaster the United States had ever faced, by which time the system was so clearly broken that Americans gave him carte blanche. Moreover, the Depression was deep enough when he took office that even by 1936, voters still blamed Herbert Hoover and the Republicans. And crucially, the economy had begun to recover by 1936, if slowly. The emergency measures of the early New Deal had stabilized the financial system. Unemployment was still historically high, but it had fallen by a third since 1932. Stock prices had climbed dramatically. The economy wasn't nearly where it should have been, but it was moving in the right direction, Roosevelt said repeatedly. And people believed him.
Obama's timing has been less fortunate. He rode the financial crisis to victory, but he inherited the recession that came with it. Because the recession deepened after his election, he had much greater difficulty pinning the blame on his predecessor than Roosevelt did. And while Obama succeeded in keeping the economy from sliding into a depressive abyss, he got little credit, an injustice that reveals a cruel fact of American politics: It is better to inherit a disaster than to avert one.
Still, the economy has shown some positive signs during the past year, and if the improvement accelerates into 2012, Obama will be able to make the case Roosevelt made in 1936: We're not where we want to be, but we're getting there.
When Obama entered office, he was frequently likened to FDR. The parallels, and the expectations they implied, were often exaggerated. There is a similar danger of exaggerating the likelihood of a 1936-style win for Obama in 2012. For all sorts of reasons, a victory of that magnitude isn't in the cards. But reelection just might be.
H.W. Brands is the author of "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" and, most recently, "American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900."