Let Obama be Reagan? Not quite.

Unemployment is over 9 percent, independents are souring on the President, and the Presidency is looking like a failure. Welcome to 1982—except for one small thing: the current president and his party are supposed to care.

Ezra Klein provides a fascinating graph: Obama’s respective poll ratings among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents almost precisely mirror Ronald Reagan’s respective poll ratings among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents at this point in his term; in fact, the two presidents’ poll ratings have closely tracked each other throughout.

[Click for larger image.]

Two other facts put this in context:

—The unemployment rate as of July this year was 9.5 percent.  But in July 1982 it was 9.8 percent—and rising.

—At this point in 1982, newspapers and magazines  were running stories about how Republican members of Congress thought the President was out of touch when it came to unemployment and were looking frantically for ways to distance themselves from him before the midterms. (I’m about to quote an example.)

I think it’s important to remember just how savage the Reagan Recession was, and how much short-term damage it did to his poll ratings.  And I think one reason younger political reporters and activists are so eager to write off Obama is that they don’t remember.  But this doesn’t mean that Obama and the Democrats’ long-term prospects should necessarily be expected to track Reagan’s and the Republicans’ in the early 80s. There’s a fundamental asymmetry, and it appears in a random New York Times article I pulled from August ’82 (citation and free preview here):

The problems of cities like Chester are aggravated because the Reagan budget cuts have slashed funds for public service jobs, economic development and other programs that could put people back to work. Mr. Schulze [Republican of Pennsylvania] says he has not lost faith in the his President’s program, but he feels that Mr. Reagan does not fully understand its impact.

”The direction the President has set for the economy is correct,” he said. ”But in the interim, you have to take care of situations like Chester. You don’t let them fall between the cracks.”

Spokesmen for the Administration have repeatedly maintained that the Government has minimal responsibility for the needy. In addition, Mr. Schulze thinks that the White House is not sufficiently tuned in to the political fallout from this policy and to the special problems of House members who must face the voters every two years.

All of this tracks the present eerily except the part I’ve set in boldface.  Millions of lives were ruined in the Reagan Recession.  But Reagan’s core supporters weren’t the ones most affected, and their ideology helped them rationalize not caring about those who were affected.   Democrats just aren’t like that.

The party’s political problem isn’t just unemployment.  It’s unemployment combined with being the party that avowedly cares about unemployment and whose members are likely to be feeling it.  With nobler aspirations come greater pressures to deliver.

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Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

17 thoughts on “Let Obama be Reagan? Not quite.”

  1. No the party's problem is that the Fed is unable to fix the recession like Volker did. And Volker was punished for his part in causing the recession by being dumped, something Bernanke doesn't have to fear since it took 18 months for Obama to get around to evne filling Fed vacancies. its unlikely he can get together a coup like they did to promote Greenspan.

  2. "With nobler aspirations come greater pressures to deliver." If someone else didn't already say that, it belongs in Bartlett's. One very rarely sees mention of this particular burden that Democrats — and I suppose the Left in general — must bear.

  3. Wow. I guess it would be helpful if we could get the present administration to say that millions of lives are being ruined right now, during the Obama recession. Instead we are welcomed to the recovery. And maybe we could get all those people who approve of how things are going–those compassionate folks who apparently aren't bothered by the millions of lives being ruined, or approve of the ruination–to express some frustration with the Obama administration, and to urge, as they did a generation ago, a change in policies.

  4. Thomas: ditto. I find it strange that there is so little coverage of the havoc that's getting wreaked. It's strange.

    Oh for the days when GOP pols at least pretended to care about poor people. I think a few of them actually did.

    Hey, I have an idea for a new recurring feature for this blog: "Republicans Who Don't S–k." It is like Michael Kinsley's idea to list people who donated the most money. Maybe if we recognized the ones who aren't awful, more of them would feel empowered to show their other face to us. (I am confident it must exist.)

  5. It's a lead pipe cinch that about 9% of working-age Americans will have no job to go to on election day. So they will be free to go to the polls. The ridiculous thing is that a goodly fraction of them will go to the polls and vote Republican.

    If not for that ridiculous thing, the Republicans would be toast. You can't spot the opposition 9% of the vote and hope to win back the House.

    –TP

  6. "If not for that ridiculous thing, the Republicans would be toast. You can’t spot the opposition 9% of the vote and hope to win back the House."

    Well, you can if you can successfully push back against the malinformed crowd such as Thomas above who call it "Obama's recession". Puh-lease. But these are Dems we are talking about, so it is simply idle talk and no hope of an actionable plan.

  7. Thomas, I think Andrew's point stands just fine. Of course every administration is going to spin. But the underlying truth is that there is a fundamental difference between conservatism and liberalism, stemming from their respective views on human agency, economic fairness, and the utility of government. Conservatives are much more likely to view those at the bottom – who are going to be unable to meet basic human needs – as more responsible for their own suffering because they made poor choices, and that government attempts to help will only create dependency. Obama and Reagan are obviously miles apart, as are Democrats and Republicans.

    Conservative "tough love" is, by definition, more dependent on a denial of empathy. My fear is that so much of this suffering takes place at the social margins, out of sight. Since human empathy doesn't tend to kick in unless the suffering is right in your face, when poor families go without or lose their homes empathy response won't be triggered. It's easier to adhere to abstract philosophy when the suffering seems distant. Liberals are no less removed from these realities, but their ideological system is less dependent on denying empathy.

  8. NCG,

    Fine. Name five Republicans currently in office who don't suck. At the national level I'm hard-pressed to think of any nominees at all, and those I can think of (Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins) don't pass my giggle test. One can be a leader and a cynic, but allowing the troops to see the cynicism is generally not a Good Idea. Snowe and Collins don't pass my giggle test because they're busy enabling the Strategy of NO.

  9. "The unemployment rate as of July this year was 9.5 percent. But in July 1982 it was 9.8 percent—and rising."

    Here's a bit more context:

    The Reagan recession Andrew refers to is shown as the magenta line in the linked graph. Employment loss relative to peak employment (before the recession began) was only half as deep as it's been (so far) during the current downturn which is indicated by the red line. Also, after a little more than two years the labor market had regained, by 1983, all the lost jobs and then some. At the same point this time around we were still near the bottom of the trough. Currently, nearly six months after that, we've yet to make any real progress. At this rate we will take far longer to return to the peak employment level than following the 2001 recession. You remember that one (it is shown as the brown line), it was called the Jobless Recovery.

    Andrew writes: "The party’s political problem isn’t just unemployment." He's right. It's also disemployment. Many of the older people among the unemployed will never find work in their fields again. If they're fortunate to find work at all it will likely be in low paying service jobs. The middle class is shrinking and the under class is growing. This trend is a recipe for disaster for the Democratic Party, not to mention democracy in general. If the Obama administration doesn't turn things around quickly and dramatically there will be no second term. And deservedly so.

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