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:
—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.