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What Obama Could Learn From Reagan

I joined Walter Mondale's campaign as his issues director in June 1982, and I vividly remember the excitement that gripped most Democrats at the time. Ronald Reagan's approval rating had fallen below 40 percent, and party professionals believed that the failure of his economic plan to produce a turnaround all but guaranteed huge trouble for incumbent Republicans--political scientists predicted Republican losses of up to 50 House seats. It didn't work out that way, though: Republicans dropped a relatively modest 26 seats in the House and held steady in the Senate. (By contrast, Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats in the first midterm election of the Clinton administration.)

How do we explain the results of November 1982--and what, if anything, could Barack Obama learn from them as he faces political problems of his own due to an economic crisis? Two factors were key to Reagan's success. First, he remained resolute throughout, radiating confidence that his plan would succeed in the end despite some appalling economic figures (most notably the post-Depression peak of 10.8 percent unemployment in November 1982). And, secondly, Democrats never persuaded the country that they had a new economic approach that would differ from, or work better than, the policies that had been discredited by the end of Jimmy Carter's term.

Then, Reagan benefitted from some good news. During the second half of his first term, the economy improved mightily. The pace of economic activity rose by 7.7 percent from the 4th quarter of 1982 to the comparable quarter of 1983, and by an additional 5.6 percent over the next year. Between November 1982 and November 1984, unemployment fell by 3.5 percentage points, from 10.8 to 7.2 percent. Not surprisingly, Reagan's election-year slogan--"It's morning in America"--rang true to most Americans, and he won reelection by 18 percentage points.

This history suggests two lessons for President Obama between now and 2012. First, the administration should take every opportunity to remind the American people that the Bush administration's economic policies collapsed--completely and catastrophically. Of the ten presidents since Harry Truman, Bush ranks dead last in annual GDP and job growth, as well as annual change in the S&P 500. He ranks first in only one category: the growth of the national debt as a percentage of GDP. The president's message should be simple: Why would we return to what failed? And why should we pay any attention to an opposition party that has no new ideas and advocates returning to the failed policies of the past?

Second, as soon as the three legs of Obama's economic recovery strategy--fiscal stimulus, financial rescue, and regulatory reform--are in place, he should hold to them consistently. That needn't mean stubborn inflexibility on details, a mistake Reagan rarely made. But it does mean firm adherence to the essentials, regardless of short-term results, which are likely to be discouraging. Output will continue to decline, for instance, until inventories stabilize at acceptable levels. And over the past twelve months, unemployment has risen from 4.9 to 7.6 percent, and it may well reach nine percent before peaking. From election night on, Obama has been telling the country--rightly--that economic recovery will be measured in years rather than months. He should keep on doing this until the message sinks in. The odds are good that, as was the case in Reagan's first term, the second two years will be much better than the first two, and a steadfast president will reap the political rewards.  

To be sure, our politics has changed since Reagan's time. The 24-hour news cycle has fostered a tyranny of immediacy and has made it more difficult than ever before to stay focused on the longer term. Having to care, constantly, about narrow concerns like who's up today and who's down makes governing a far more difficult task. But in his inaugural address, Obama called upon Americans to put aside "childish things," among which is the desire for easy answers and instant gratification. The success of his presidency depends on his willingness to treat his fellow citizens as adults, and on their willingness to respond in kind.