Friday, July 8, 2011

Wrong Way

Gilligan's Island only lasted three TV seasons in the 1960s, but I recall seeing (in reruns) a couple of episodes in which Hans Conried played a character named Wrongway Feldman.

Feldman, if my memory serves me correctly, was a World War I era flying ace who got his nickname because he always flew in the wrong direction.

I mention that because, after hearing today's jobs report, it occurred to me that Barack Obama should be called "Wrongway Obama."

Now, optimistic Democrats have been pointing to the example of Ronald Reagan as evidence that presidents can win a second term in spite of midterm election setbacks and high unemployment rates.

It's one of those historically similar but ultimately illogical (in a modern context) kind of comparisons. The biggest and most obvious problem — and most threatening to this president — is simply that things are going in the wrong way.

Notice the trajectory of the unemployment rates in the chart. As you do, let's revisit the early 1980s for a minute.

There is no question that, in January 1983, the unemployment rate (10.4%), while not at its highest under Reagan, was on its way down from its peak in November 1982, the month that the Republicans lost more than two dozen seats in the House.

Those midterm losses, incidentally, did not cost the Republicans control of the chamber the way last November's losses cost the Democrats their majority. In 1982, the Republicans were in the minority, as they had been for nearly three decades. Through all of Reagan's first term, his party controlled the Senate while the Democrats controlled the House.

Reagan and his Republicans had to forge compromises with Democrats from the start. The like–minded Democrats who helped them accomplish their objectives became known as the "boll weevil Democrats." Without them, it is questionable whether Reagan could have accomplished much in the first two years of his presidency.

Sounds a lot like what Barack Obama must contend with in the last 18 months of his term, doesn't it? His party controls the Senate, the other party controls the House.

But therein lies one of the key differences between 1983 and 2011, you see.

Obama's Democrats enjoyed majority status — for awhile, super–majority status — in both chambers until they were resoundingly rejected in the 2010 midterms. In theory, prior to that, there was nothing to prevent them from enacting anything they wished for two years.

Being Democrats, though, they fought among themselves and drew lines in the dirt over mostly inconsequential matters. They squandered their opportunity.

And now, to accomplish anything in the last half of Obama's term, they will have to do something — repeatedly — that this president has never done before.

He can dig in his heels and resist — but then nothing will happen between now and November 2012. Or he can give in to Republican demands — and perhaps make things worse. Even if he doesn't make matters worse, he'll hand the other side the victories he is going to need to bolster his record in next year's campaign.

Anyway, the jobless rate continued to drop through 1983 until midway through 1984, when it settled into a modest up–and–down pattern — but it was more than three percentage points lower in November 1984 than it had been in November 1982.

Today's jobs report shows a different pattern. It suggests that, after a few slightly encouraging months earlier this year, when unemployment was registering 0.1% monthly declines, it is moving back up. One has to wonder if there is any way that Obama can reverse the trend — and, if he can, will he be able to take credit for it?

In 1983, there were enough Democrats in the House who sympathized with the Republicans that they could push through Reagan administration initiatives.

But, in 2011, politics in America is so polarized that it is really difficult to imagine Democrats enlisting enough Republican support in the House or Republicans enlisting enough Democrat support in the Senate to enact anything.

So, I think you can rule out any real compromises in the next 18 months.

I think it is also important to remember the circumstances under which each president was elected.

Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in November 1979, when unemployment was around 6% — just about its lowest level during the Carter years, an improvement over what Carter had inherited but much lower than it wound up being when voters went to the polls a year later.

And it was higher than Americans were accustomed to. Reagan's 1980 campaign was built on economic issues. When unemployment surged past 7% in the spring of 1980, peaking at nearly 8% in the summer, he had already laid the foundation for an economic–oriented campaign.

Unemployment was even lower when Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007 — about 4.5%. As hard as it may be to remember now, in 2007, the 2008 campaign figured to be about foreign policy — but that changed when the economy imploded in 2008. When voters went to the polls in November 2008, unemployment was higher than it had been in 15 years.

Well, today, it's more than two percentage points higher than it was when Obama was elected.

There is a lot of work to be done to persuade America that the Obama administration is on the right track — and not much time to do it.

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