Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have a few things in common. Each rose to power on the strength of his charisma and, once in the White House, faced economic challenges in his first term. That’s to say that both presidents saw unemployment break 10 percent.
When he took office in 1981, Reagan was confronted with an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, and the job shedding continued into the first years of his presidency, peaking at 10.8 percent in December 1982. But the losses were relatively minor compared to previous recessions. By 1984 the country had replaced the lost jobs, and Reagan declared it “morning again in America.”
Obama took office when unemployment was at 7.8 percent. It subsequently peaked at 10.1 percent in fall 2009. Though its numbers have dropped over the past three years, this recession remains the longest and deepest in terms of job losses since 1948.
So things are bad, but they’ve gotten better. The question now for Obama and his team is what tone the president should take when talking about the economy. Can his campaign, like Reagan’s, ask, “Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” Or will the question reminds voters that times remain tough?
“I think [Obama’s] got a problem saying America’s back,” says Clark Judge, a speechwriter in the Reagan White House. “He sounds as though he’s aping Reagan.”
Reagan had cut taxes, Clark says, and could claim credit for those policies stimulating the growth in the economy. “Reagan had made predictions about [job growth] after the tax cuts worked through and we were roaring out [of the recession],” he says. “He got tremendous credibility for making what was a hard decision,”
Obama has a credibility problem on the economy. His principal economic policy, the 2009 Recovery Act, had an indeterminate impact. Republicans like to point out that Obama’s economic advisors promised in 2009 that the stimulus program would keep unemployment under 8 percent during his first term. In April, the unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent. The Obama team argues that it could have been worse, especially if the auto industry hadn’t been bailed out. But that’s not exactly the kind of talk that instills confidence around bare kitchen tables.
“One of the things you’ve got to do when running for president is catch the mood,” says Judge. “When [Reagan] said America was back, people were experiencing it in their own lives.”
Still, Obama has proved himself capable of using the rhetoric of a campaign to lift spirits and inspire his supporters. He’s been doing that all this week. First, on May 21 he gave a high school commencement speech in Joplin, Mo., where he linked the rebuilding of the town devastated by tornados a year earlier with the rebuilding of the U.S. economy. Then, on May 23, he predicted an “American Century” at the commencement ceremony for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Today, we can say with confidence and pride the United States is stronger and safer and more respected in the world, because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership. And now, cadets, we have to build it,” Obama told the cadets, in his remarks.
“Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned or that America is in decline. We’ve heard that talk before. During the Great Depression, when millions were unemployed and some believed that other economic models offered a better way, there were those who predicted the end of American capitalism. Guess what, they were wrong. We fought our way back. We created the largest middle class in history and the most prosperous economy the world has ever known.”
Ed Rollins, a GOP strategist who worked in Reagan’s White House during his first term, said Obama’s lofty rhetoric is disconnected from results, which is problematic for his reelection.
“Both presidents were great campaigners, but Reagan was also an effective and inspiring president. He restored confidence and made the presidency work again,” says Rollins. “His campaign slogan was ‘leadership that’s working!’ Obama can’t use that slogan or [Reagan’s] other tag line, ‘prouder, stronger, better.’”
Obama might have the same rhetorical gifts as the 40th president. But his administration has produced uneven results for him to campaign on. His campaign will need a subtler message than “it’s morning again in America.”