Obama and the Reagan Trajectory

A year after his sweeping election victory – and ten months after he was inaugurated amid widespread public optimism – the new president’s support is slipping in the polls, faith in his policies is vanishing, and the opposition is smelling blood.

That sentence could aptly describe the political outlook that Barack Obama faces as the first year of his presidency nears its end. It also describes, just as aptly, what Ronald Reagan was facing near the end of the first year of his presidency in 1981.

Republicans, buoyed by their off-year victories in New Jersey and Virginia and rosy prospects for the 2010 midterms, are announcing that Obama’s poll numbers – which, while clearly not horrible, are hardly what they were in the late winter and spring – show that the country is turning on him and his agenda.

But what’s actually most remarkable about the trajectory of Obama’s numbers – and of his presidency – is how closely it hews to the model of Reagan’s first term. And if it’s the Reagan path that Obama is following, then Republicans might want to re-think their giddiness.

Consider this first sentence from a Washington Post story dated November 25, 1981: “Americans enter the 1981 holiday season with gloomy expectations for themselves and increasingly critical views of Ronald Reagan’s handling of the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.” Sound familiar?

At the time, the country had just plunged into a recession. Unemployment in November ’81 stood at 8.3 percent – nearly a full point jump from Reagan’s inauguration – and it was clear that things would get far worse before they improved.

Reagan had, months earlier, pushed his massive tax cut program through Congress, but voters were increasingly tuning out his pleadings that – given enough time – it would help combat the economic downturn.

In the Washington Post/ABC News poll mentioned above, he scored a 53 percent approval rating – the lowest of his presidency. Only 45 percent of voters approved of his handling of the economy, and just 41 percent thought his tax cuts would help the economy.

Similarly, two independent polls this week show Obama’s job approval slipping to the lowest level of his presidency – a 48 percent approval rating in a new Quinnipiac survey, and a 50 percent score in the latest Gallup tracking poll. In the Quinnipiac poll, only 43 percent of voters approve of his economic policies. Like Reagan’s claims about his tax cuts, the administration’s insistence that its stimulus program is helping the economy just isn’t washing with the public.

There are other similarities between Reagan’s first year and Obama’s.

Both entered office with unusual fanfare and uncommon mandates, their elections signaling the end of ideological era. In Reagan’s case, his triumph was enabled by the stagflation of the late 1970s – and a broader sense that the excesses of the New Deal and Great Society were dragging down the economy and quality of life for the middle class. In turn, the excesses of the conservative, anti-government era that Reagan ushered in – symbolized by the collapse of Wall Street – enabled Obama’s victory last fall.

Each man began his first year with a vast pool of personal goodwill among the electorate. Their uncommonly winning personalities saw to that. But that goodwill had its limits: when the massive problems they inherited didn’t immediately improve – and, in fact, got worse – their poll numbers began to drop.

The defeats of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia this year – heralded by the right as a sign of an anti-Obama backlash – are akin to the struggles of the Republican candidates in those two states in ’81. With Reagan’s numbers dropping, the G.O.P. lost in Virginia that year and – under circumstances that remain controversial to this day – eked out a narrow victory in New Jersey (where the Republican candidate, Tom Kean, had been comfortably ahead in the summer months).

This is all a long way of saying that the Republicans who are now rejoicing Obama’s imminent demise should remember the example of their patron saint, the Gipper. Because at this point in ’81 – and even more so in 1982, as unemployment continued to rise – Democrats were just as convinced that the Reagan era would last all of one term. The ’82 midterms, which produced a gain of 26 seats for the Democrats, only strengthened this conviction.

But through all of his struggles in 1981 and 1982, there were really only two things you needed to know about Reagan: (1) People genuinely liked him; and (2) People were rooting for him to succeed. This didn’t mean they’d give him a pass while the economy was faltering – clearly, they didn’t. But it did mean that they’d come rushing back to him if and when the economy returned.

And that’s exactly what happened in 1983 and 1984, as unemployment finally began to fall and the recession ended. Reagan called it “morning again in America” and the same public that had been so unconvinced about his tax cuts was more than happy to give him – and his program – credit for the recovery. A 49-state landslide re-election ensued.

Those same two things are true of Obama, no matter how much the right wishes they weren’t: People do genuinely like him (71 percent of them, according to a new CNN poll), and they are pulling for him to succeed. This is easy to lose sight of right now, as it will be for some time – especially if, as is likely, the Democrats suffer significant losses in next year’s midterms.

But all of the damage can and will be undone if the economy turns around. Reagan proved that to skeptical Democrats 28 years ago.

  Obama and the Reagan Trajectory