Barack Obama hearts Ronald Reagan. We saw it during the 2008 presidential election, when he praised Reagan's ability to change the political landscape, and we saw it most recently, in his speech on the deficit, when he invoked Reagan in a plea for bipartisanship. Obama clearly envisions himself as a two-term president in Reagan's mold, and wants his tenure to be as central to liberals as Reagan's was to conservatives. But, as much as the president might like to compare himself to Reagan, he should be mindful of a slightly more recent Republican president: George H.W. Bush. In particular, he should study the core lesson from the first Bush's only term: it's the economy, stupid.
To be fair, the comparison to Reagan is very apt. Both Obama and Reagan entered the White House on the heels of a deeply unpopular predecessor, and both confronted unparalleled economic slowdowns. Both pursued ambitious, ideologically driven agendas, experienced a steady decline in approval ratings as unemployment rose, and suffered significant political setbacks in their midterm elections. Indeed, at 43 percent in the most recent Gallup poll, Obama's popularity is exactly the same as Reagan's at this point in his presidency.
But Reagan's fortunes soon rose. By 1984, a fast-growing economy and lower unemployment led to higher approval ratings and a successful re-election campaign against Walter Mondale and a fragmented Democratic Party. Today, optimistic liberals see history repeating itself. Between continued economic growth and a weak Republican field, Obama is seemingly in prime position to win a second term.
Of course, at one point, optimistic conservatives said the same about George H.W. Bush, and for good reason: In the spring of 1991, he was still riding the tidal wave of popularity generated by American success in the Gulf War. And while unemployment and economic anxiety soon pushed his approval ratings down from a historic high near 90 percent, Bush remained a reliable re-election bet because of the supposed weakness of the Democratic field.
New York Times' headlines and reports from the time indicate the apparent inevitability of Bush's re-election: from March 8, 1991, "Unable to Out-Hero Bush, Democrats Just Join Him"; from Aug. 8, 1991, "Democrats' Distress Grows as Presidential Field Shrinks"; and from Feb. 16, 1992, "Democrats Dread a Season Without Heavy Hitters." Indeed, even pieces criticizing Bush for his alleged aloofness ("Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed," Feb. 5, 1992) include digs at the disorganized, undisciplined Democratic presidential field ("But Mr. Bush could not seem to escape the impression that, with the Democratic field still in disarray and the economy still in recession, he was still running against himself").
Democrats eventually united behind then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, whose growing popularity was bolstered by public discontent with President Bush's approach to the souring economy. By July, Clinton had pulled ahead in the polls. By October, it was clear that Bush would join the club of forgettable one-term presidents.
The truth is that Barack Obama isn't far from Bush's fate. Unemployment remains high at 8.8 percent, and Americans feel deeply pessimistic about the country's direction. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track. What's more, 39 percent said the economy has grown worse, and 57 percent disapprove of the way President Obama is handling it.
Yes, Obama is ahead in polling by double digits against all his potential Republican opponents save Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but as we saw with George H.W. Bush, an early lead can mean little for incumbent presidents. These numbers will almost certainly change when Republicans settle on a nominee, and if next year's economy is as bad as the current one, Obama is likely to lose his bid for re-election.
That said, Obama enters this contest with one important advantage: The core members of the Democratic coalition -- African Americans and self-identified liberals -- are mostly satisfied with Obama's performance. According to the most recent Gallup survey of presidential approval, 84 percent of African Americans and 84 percent of liberal Democrats back the president. By contrast, George H.W. Bush alienated his conservative supporters with moderate social policies and a tax hike on high incomes. This discontent fueled a serious primary challenge from conservative ideologue Pat Buchanan and led to unusually low approval from Republicans in the months before the general election (57 percent in July 1992, compared to 89 percent a year earlier). Obama's domestic-policy agenda -- comprehensive health-care reform, regulation of the financial sector, and middle-class tax cuts in particular -- has been well within the Democratic mainstream. Barring a sudden change in fortunes, Obama should enter 2012 with a unified party behind him.
Still, Democrats should temper their optimism. For all the sideshow antics of the current GOP field, odds are high that Republicans will nominate someone like Romney or Tim Pawlenty: conservative enough to satisfy the base but with enough mainstream appeal to ride a poor economy to the White House.