A Tale of Three Presidencies

"The Unnecessary Fall," John Judis' premature diagnosis of the demise of the Obama administration published in The New Republic, has generated a lot of approving buzz, even though it is mostly familiar. The thesis that Obama should have asked for a bigger stimulus, should have been more confrontational with Wall Street, shouldn't have appointed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and should be more "populist" (always using a vague definition of the term that explicitly excludes any actual populism except Franklin Roosevelt's patrician version) has become entirely conventional wisdom on the left -- you've read it here, at The Huffington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere -- in fact, much the same article was written dozens of times during the 2008 primaries, as the case for a different candidate.

Judis adds a few new features to the argument. He dares to cross a new line by comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter. (And to Herbert Hoover, too, just to lay it on thick.) And he compares Obama unfavorably to Ronald Reagan. This is significant because, as many (political scientists in particular) have pointed out, Obama's sagging popularity generally tracks Reagan's decline during the steep recession of 1982, and is exactly what one should expect of even a strong presidency in poor economic times.

Most presidents lose some steam in their second year and tend to lose ground in the first midterm congressional elections, the more so if the economy is in trouble. (The exceptions have been FDR and George W. Bush.) Many, like Reagan and Bill Clinton, recovered, while others, like Carter, continued to sag. (Carter had occasional bursts of popularity.) By suggesting that Obama is more like Carter than like Reagan, Judis can make the case that the president's sagging approval is a death spiral, not just a temporary function of the economy.

In his ahistorical attempt to link Obama to Carter, Judis doesn't even bother to make an argument. It's just a subtle dig premised on the fact that both briefly used the same dumb phrase ("New Foundation") in a speech. We've all gone a little soft on Carter because of his admirable ex-presidency, but Barack Obama's presidency has absolutely nothing in common with the tragic and near total failure that was Carter's. Obama accomplishes more in an average month than Carter did in four years. Carter spoiled his relationship with the leaders of the massive Democratic majority in Congress immediately, he wouldn't push for his initiatives, he couldn't set priorities, he was indecisive and basically didn't understand his job, as James Fallows wrote in a 1979 essay -- "The Passionless Presidency" -- which remains a useful portrait of what a real presidential train wreck looks like (and why the White House needs a Rahm Emanuel). Laura Kalman's recent book about the Ford and Carter years (which I review in the forthcoming October issue of the Prospect) is also a powerful recounting of the debacle of the Carter presidency.

While making little effort to back up the Obama-as-Carter claim, Judis makes two serious attempts to rebut the Obama-as-Reagan argument, but in both cases, he cherry-picks polling data in misleading ways:

Some commentators have noted Reagan's popularity was even lower than Obama's. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing -- and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan's program. ... On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan's economic program would eventually help the country. That's a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November.

Judis is correct that in an October 1982 survey, 60 percent answered "help" to the question, "Do you think the economic program eventually will help or hurt the country's economy?" But this result was a total outlier, even in the CBS/New York Times polls. One day later, in the same network's exit polls, when the question was phrased as, "In the long run, do you think Ronald Reagan's economic program will help the country's economy, or hurt the country's economy?" only 49 percent thought it would help. Reagan's approval rating on his handling of the economy was 35 percent in September 1982, with 57 percent disapproving. Obama's approval rating on the economy in June, in both the CBS and Pew polls, was 10 points higher, at 45 percent.

In other words, Obama commands exactly the same numbers or better on the economy. When voters in 1982 were asked whether "the economic program" would eventually help, it's possible that they were thinking of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker's policy of defeating inflation with high interest rates, rather than Reagan's quite inconsistent fiscal program. (Shortly before the election, he signed legislation reversing some of the tax cuts of the first year, a bill which remains the biggest tax increase in U.S. history.)

Here's Judis' other stab at salvaging Reagan's sorry second and third year at Obama's expense:

In Pew's midyear report card on Obama's image, the greatest drop from February 2009 to this June was in the perception of Obama as a "strong leader." Voters will sometimes tolerate policies they question from presidents like John Kennedy or Reagan, whom they regard as "strong," but not from politicians like Jimmy Carter, whom they regard as weak.

True, Obama's biggest decline in the Pew poll was on "strong leader." But he began his term with the highest ratings on that attribute of any president since Reagan -- almost identical to Reagan's, in fact. And both subsequently lost ground.

From the Pew Polls, here's Obama's descent, on the "strong leader" question:

Jan 2009: 77%
Jan 2010: 62%
June 2010: 53%

And here's Reagan. The first data point is from a CBS/NYT poll; the rest are

Time/Yankelovich polls:
Jan 1981: 78%
Dec 1981: 71%
June 1982: 44%
Dec. 1982: 41%
March 1983: 38%

(Source: Roper Center iPoll database)

From identical stratospheric perceptions as leaders, Obama has lost 24 points, while Reagan lost 40 points, a drop of more than half. Obama is still regarded by a majority as a strong leader; Reagan at the same point definitely wasn't.

Judis says, of the economy, that "if Obama could command [Reagan's] numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November." But not only are Obama's numbers better than Reagan's, Reagan didn't "seriously limit" his own losses. The economy in 1982 flipped 27 House seats to the Democrats, enough to enable the party to marginalize the conservative Democrats who had supported Reagan's policies in 1981. (Democrats gained only one seat in the Senate, probably because only 11 Republicans were up for re-election that year.) The basic, boring insight of the political scientists is right here: Bad economies hurt presidents. The advice that if only Obama mimicked FDR, he too would win seats in the midterm seems like a very simplistic form of historical analogy, about a very different and unique moment.

Reagan recovered, of course, in time for the "Morning in America" election of 1984. And so we naturally forget those days when he seemed doomed to be the fifth consecutive president to leave office a failure, rather than the first since Eisenhower to complete two terms and leave more or less respected. (I was kind of shocked to learn of the magnitude of Reagan's slump myself, although I was alive and politically aware at the time.) He recovered not because of his message or his political operation, as Judis suggests, but because the economy recovered.

And so the lesson from Reagan is, above all, get the policy right. If the economy recovers, so will Obama's presidency. Judis' argument that Obama should have demanded a bigger stimulus therefore makes sense -- if Congress had been willing to vote for a bigger stimulus, and if the money could have been moved into the economy more quickly than the existing stimulus, the economy might have received a more lasting jolt. (That's a lot of "ifs," however.) But Judis' argument that in the early months of his administration, Obama should have attacked Wall Street rather than recapitalizing the banks and the auto companies needs to be judged as a policy recommendation, not a suggestion about political strategy. If Judis is confident that letting a few more banks fail and rejecting the mortgage-relief initiatives that launched the Tea Party movement would have had no negative economic consequences, then it's a reasonable suggestion. But substituting angry language for action would have been a dreadful mistake if it risked a far deeper and longer economic debacle.

As it is, it will take enormous creativity, patience, and international coordination, in the face of a resistant Congress and persistent worry about the budget deficit, to get anything close to the economic recovery that Reagan benefited from in 1984. That was such a simpler economic program! But there is no alternative to that hard work. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Todd Purdum concluded that "Obama's gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself." It is a gamble, but in fact it was Reagan's gamble, too. And it worked.

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