5.1, 9.3, 8.1, 8.5, 8, 7.1 and 3.9.
While that might sound like a controversial series of Olympic curling scores, these numbers in fact add up to a grave problem for PresidentBarack Obama.
They are the quarterly percentage gains in gross domestic product starting in 1983 through to Election Day 1984. And they aren't the only significant numbers. In 1984, real income for individuals grew by more than 6 percent and inflation plummeted. The unemployment rate in November 1984 was still 7.2 percent — relatively high — but it had dropped from 10.8 percent in December 1982, and it was clear the momentum was for even lower unemployment. "Staying the course" with
Sadly for Mr. Obama — but far worse for the country — that kind of growth seems like a pipe dream. Last month, the
As the November elections approached, White House strategists and liberal writers spun the Reagan precedent as a reason to remain optimistic about Mr. Obama's re-election chances. Reagan had lost 26 House seats (and zero in the Senate) in his first midterm elections yet went on to win re-election handily. Liberal writers such as The New Republic's John Judis insisted Obama could limit his losses by emulating Reagan's communications strategy.
Reportedly, Mr. Obama's speechwriters even studied Reagan's speeches for tips on how to frame the choice. They concluded, since Reagan blamed
Such "Reaganesque" rhetoric didn't save Democrats from a "shellacking" (to borrow Mr. Obama's word) at the polls (though in a decidedly mixed blessing the Democrats did hold on to Mr. Reid's seat). Mr. Obama lost more than twice as many seats in the House (63) as Reagan did and six in the Senate.
Tellingly, Mr. Obama explained away the electoral rebuke not on his policies but on his inability to communicate the truth to the public. It's funny how the supposedly greatest communicator since Reagan — or Cicero, depending on who you listen to — is always suffering from a communications problem.
And this points to the real reason why the Reagan parallel just doesn't work. As much as it may annoy Mr. Obama and his supporters to hear it, the reason why Reagan's rhetoric was effective is that voters believed it was matched to successful policies. Meanwhile many of Mr. Obama's top priorities — health care reform, green energy, etc. — have had, at best, a tangential connection to the economic recovery and arguably, as in the case of energy, they've made things worse. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has rightly pointed out that even Reagan's communications strategy didn't improve media coverage or his standing in public opinion polls. Reagan's popularity recovered with the economic recovery. (The media coverage, however, remained relentlessly hostile until a few years ago.)
In recent weeks, it seems that the White House has discovered that, barring an entirely unforeseen economic boom, the Reagan analogy is a nonstarter for them. That spells an ironic challenge for Mr. Obama, because it probably means that he will have to run a base election whereby he galvanizes his core supporters and hopes red meat and turnout numbers will save him. In short, it means the president will be emulating George W. Bush's re-election strategy even as he pins all his problems on George W. Bush.