Stimulus Politics Is Fleeting, the 2008 Realignment Isn’t

On Sunday's "Meet the Press," David Gregory confronted David Axelrod, one of President Obama's chief advisers, with a respected economist's grim conclusion that the stimulus package Obama will sign on Tuesday simply isn't big enough and that the unemployment rate will hover around 10 percent at the end of 2010.

"You heard people saying it was too small, you had people saying it was too large," Axelrod replied. "We believe it's where it should be."

That might be wishful thinking. As Gregory pointed out, the economy is currently underperforming by nearly $3 trillion; a stimulus package worth one-quarter of that surely won't hurt, but it raises the possibility that, when they focus on the '10 midterm election 18 months or so from now, Americans will judge the stimulus plan a failure – and take out their frustration on Obama's party.

But in a way, we've traveled this road before. The parallels between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama – in terms of their appeal, their style and the circumstances under which they won office, not their ideologies – are many, and the example of Reagan's first term offers a guide to the political roller-coaster Obama may be in for.

Reagan, like Obama, rode to office on the strength of his personality (and with a devoted grassroots following among his party's true believers) at a time of economic gloom, international turmoil, and sagging national confidence. And as with Obama, Reagan's lopsided victory prompted forecasts of the other party's long-term demise. Before the 1980 election, Republicans were seen as a permanent minority party, on Capitol Hill and across the country. After it, they controlled the White House and the Senate and had pulled within 26 seats of a House majority.

Reagan's prescription for the country's domestic woes involved massive tax cuts, which – aided by his surprisingly durable (Obama-like, it might be said) popularity – he pushed through Congress in the first half of 1981. Meanwhile, Democratic congressional leaders fared miserably in polls and, for the first time ever, surveys showed as many voters calling themselves Republicans as Democrats.

By the summer of ‘81, Republicans were openly forecasting even bigger gains for their party in the 1982 midterm elections. A swing of just 26 House seats would put the G.O.P. in charge, and with redistricting shifting 17 Northeast seats to the G.O.P.-friendly Sun Belt, Republicans figured they were already at least halfway there. And in the Senate, where Republicans already held a 54-46 advantage, Democrats would have to defend 19 seats in '82, compared to only 13 for Republicans, numbers that made Republican gains almost inevitable.

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Stimulus Politics Is Fleeting, the 2008 Realignment Isn’t