You will recall that presidential candidate Barack Obama once (in)famously said “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” The response was predictable: liberals were furious, conservatives were nauseous and cable news junkies started shooting up. Praising the arch-nemesis of progressive politics, after all, is an unusual tactical choice for a Democratic politician.
Now whether Obama was right about Reagan’s legacy is a debatable question, but it is a fact that Reagan changed at least the trajectory of his presidency and Mr. Obama might find in the Reagan record a hint of things to come for his own. The Reagan mythologizers would have us believe that Mr. Reagan, armed with only manly conviction and his budget and commie-busting whip, rode triumphantly into Washington and proceeded to relieve the town of the mis-guided, if well-intentioned, leadership of Pastor Carter. The townsfolk rejoiced and then re-elected him sheriff by a landslide.
The trouble with this Zane Grey history is that it simply isn’t true. Ronald Reagan was hugely unpopular throughout the first half of his first term. In addition to some very big and unpopular legislation, which had alienated huge swaths of the electorate, voters also held Reagan personally responsible for the dormant economy. Sound familiar? It should, because in terms of public perception, Mr. Obama’s presidency most closely resembles the Gipper’s. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at the numbers put together by the usually reliable pollster.com. Their research reveals that in terms of national opinion polling, Obama is not only tracking on the same general trajectory as Reagan, but in a month-to-month analysis, their numbers are in almost perfect synch. Though Reagan’s disapproval rating was actually two points lower than Obama’s at the same point in his presidency, his approval rating was almost four points lower than Obama’s.
The parallels don’t end there. The New York Times reported today that one of the 2010 Republican talking points is that unemployment is higher now then when President Obama took office. That is certainly true. Yet republicans would do well to remember that the same thing was true in 1982. One of the reasons why the 1982 midterms produced a 26-seat gain for the Democrats is that joblessness continued to rise throughout the first half of Reagan’s first term. The strategy that the Reagan White House adopted in response was to blame the Democrats for the country’s troubles. That too is a striking parallel: Also from today's New York Times: Obama advisor “David Plouffe told reporters on Thursday that his party’s candidates should confront anger about the economic crisis head on—and then blame Republicans.”
This all just proves one of Malone’s Political Rules: “Study history so you can be sure to repeat it.” In other words, if blame-gaming worked before, it’ll probably work again. People don't change that much. So expect more of the same: an angry electorate, a besieged president, lots of scapegoating and a few more stories about how Obama has lost his touch. They’ll be some losses in November, some more blaming, and then, if the economy turns around, improved presidential approval ratings and media stories about how Obama’s magic is back. In the best case for Democrats, 2011-12 will then be a new morning in America. The big “if” in that scenario, of course, is the economy. For all the similarities with ’82, the current recession is deeper and longer by most accounts. That obviously worries the White House. But the President has a famously audacious hope and a look at Reagan’s political trajectory gives him cause for it.