If you believe midterm elections are a referendum on the president, then President Obama could be forgiven for being a bit down, given the shellacking his party seems to be headed toward in a week. But if there is a silver lining the White House wants to cling to, consider this: He’s in better shape than Ronald Reagan was at this point in his presidency.
Forty-seven percent of the public would like to see Obama run for reelection in 2012, according to the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center.
That number, while falling short of a majority, is still much higher than Reagan’s was in August 1982 — 36 percent, according to Gallup polling. Fifty-one percent said Reagan should not run for reelection. A few months later, after Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 House seats and gained a Senate seat in the November midterm elections, an even higher number, 56 percent, said Reagan should not run in 1984.
A little less than two years later, Reagan beat former Vice President Walter Mondale in a landslide, winning 49 states and 59 percent of the popular vote.
Obama finds himself in similar territory as Reagan. Both were elected during difficult economic times and succeeded unpopular presidents. Both came promising to change the way things were done in Washington. Both saw their footings slip and their ratings sag as the economies of their times suffered devastating recessions.
In 1982, the unemployment rate averaged 9.7 percent. For this year, it’s uncannily similar. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed a 9.6 percent rate.
What accounted for Reagan’s turnaround? For one, the economy turned around; 1982 was a bleak year. The economy began to rally in 1983, but even then, Reagan’s numbers were nothing to trumpet. In October 1983, 44 percent said he should run for reelection, and 47 percent said he shouldn’t.
For context, the 1984 edition of The Almanac of American Politics offers this observation: “The Reagan administration, in its first months, was moving in the direction people said they wanted. But it found soon enough that they wanted to move only so far.”
In an interview with National Journal magazine last week, Obama acknowledged that Americans had taken in a lot during the last two years. “It was a lot for the public to digest. It was also a lot for me to be able to communicate effectively to the public in any coherent way … Now that the economy is stable and growing — although still much weaker than we want — I think it’s possible for us to be more deliberate, to spend more time building consensus,” he said.
Before the Obama team is tempted to breathe a little easier, though, consider the case of two other first-term presidents who had relatively good numbers from the public two years out but lost their bids for reelection.
In November 1990, Gallup polling showed that 53 percent of the public wanted President George H.W. Bush to run for reelection. The midterm elections that year were a relative wash: Republicans were in the minority in both chambers. They lost eight House seats and one Senate seat. But Bush was fairly popular, with job approval ratings in the high 50s and a war in the Persian Gulf about to start that would send them into the 90s. He lost to Bill Clinton just two years later.
The man Reagan unseated in 1980, Jimmy Carter, had similar ratings to Obama, according to NBC/Associated Press polling. In October 1978, 50 percent of the public said they wanted to see Carter run for reelection. Two months later, after Carter’s Democrats had lost 15 House seats and 3 Senate seats, 47 percent said they would like to see Carter run again. Two years later, Reagan won 489 electoral votes and 51 percent of the popular vote to unseat the man from Plains, Ga.
So the president has a lot to consider as he sifts through the returns that will start coming in soon, likely with bad news for some of his closest allies.
Many of the winners, come next Tuesday, will likely be hard-line conservatives affiliated with the tea party and ready to take on what they believe is an overreaching federal government exemplified by Obama’s policies.
Another line from the 1984 Almanac could apply both to Obama and his toughest critics: “The Reaganites found there were limits on how far the public wanted anti-government rhetoric to be taken. … To the extent that these underlying beliefs — this basic liberal consensus — works against what the administration wants to do, we will see a continuing movement and change in direction of policy from what it was in the Reaganites’ halcyon days of 1981, even if the administration’s policies produce, or seem to produce, the peace and prosperity that will likely keep Ronald Reagan or his Republican successor in the White House in 1984.”
The Congressional Connection survey of 1,006 adults was conducted October 21-24 and has a 4-point error margin.
This article appears in the Oct. 26, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.