Democrats Look to Obama/Reagan Comparisons for Solace

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President Obama is in better re-election shape now than President Reagan was at the equivalent point in his first term, according to a new poll from National Journal and the Pew Research Center. In August of 1982, only 36 percent of voters wanted Reagan to run again, according to Gallup polling. The new NJ/Pew poll, however, shows that 47 percent of of the public would like to see Obama run for re-election in 2012. 

The beacon of hope here for the White House, of course, is that despite taking a beating in the 1982 midterms, Reagan won 49 states and 59 percent of the popular vote in 1984, successfully installing him in his second term. And Reagan, like Obama, launched his presidency during a tough economy. In 1982, the country's unemployment rate was nearly identical to what it is today.

Obama/Reagan comparisons have been captivating downtrodden Democrats recently, providing hope that the president will be able to recover from a rocky two years and what figures to be a brutal midterm Election Day and find his footing as a historic, popular president. 

But as Marc Ambinder pointed out last week, Reagan's turnaround hinged on something that, to a certain extent, was out of his control: an economic recovery. Reagan gets a lot of credit for pushing a compelling message on his administration's economic efforts, but he received an all-important boost from an unemployment rate that had dropped from 9.7 to 7.4 percent by November of 1984 and a general sense of returning optimism. An Obama victory in 2012 may require a similar economic upswing.

Writing about the new NJ/Pew poll, Jason Dick also cautions optimists:

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.  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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