Reagan's recovery was robust, Obama's economy still sluggish 

With a weak first quarter GDP number out this morning, we have further evidence that the sluggish pace of the current economic recovery is trailing far behind the power of the 1983-84 Reagan recovery. This suggests that President Obama will have a much tougher time winning reelection than Reagan did.

Obama's political fortunes have often been compared to Reagan's, because both men took office during a bad economy and saw their once high approval ratings nosedive. And if you compare the trajectory of their approval ratings using Gallup's handy tool, the overall pattern is quite similar up until this point. Yet by this time in 1983, Reagan's approval rating had bottomed out and had begun its recovery. While we can't predict where Obama's will go, economic data suggest he's much less likely to get as big a political boost as Reagan.

This morning, the Commerce Department reported that first quarter GDP grew at a mere 1.8 percent clip. While the number is an advance estimate and could change, it's not going to get near the 5.1 percent growth in the comparable quarter during Reagan's first term (i.e. Q1 1983). And while growth is expected to pick up in the second quarter, it won't get anywhere near the 9.3 percent rate of 1983's second quarter.

Overall, the Federal Reserve Board now projects GDP growth of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent in 2011, and 3.5 percent to 4.2 percent next year, when Obama stands for reelection. Yet the economy grew at a 4.5 percent pace in 1983 and a whopping 7.2 percent in 1984, the year of the Reagan landslide.

On the unemployment front, the numbers are more comparable. In April 1983, unemployment was at 10.2 percent and dropped to 7.4 percent by October 1984. Currently, the Fed projects unemployment of 7.6 percent to 7.9 percent by the end of 2012.

Yet it's also important to note that Reagan was also fighting a battle on multiple fronts. He took office after a year of 13.5 percent inflation in 1980, and by 1984 it dropped to 4.3 percent. On the flip side, Obama took over at a time of low inflation, and we're now starting to see prices rise, especially on food and gas, which Americans tend to notice.

Thus, Reagan was able to run a “Morning in America” campaign while, at best, Obama will only be able to argue that things could have been worse.

Obviously, economic news is unpredictable. There are other factors that will affect the outcome of next year's election. And of course, just because Obama is unlikely to win 49 states next year, it doesn't mean he can't still win a narrower victory over a weak Republican challenger.

That said, it's worth noting that by any realistic projections, the economic news over the next 18 months is not going to approach the robustness of the Reagan recovery, so the Gipper's 1983-84 political comeback probably isn't a useful model to look at when assessing Obama's reelection chances.

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Philip Klein

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