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How to Beat the One-Term Blues

Susan J. Douglas

Obama is dead meat. A one-term president. The Republicans will roar back triumphantly to take over Congress in November. They have won the message” and are stronger than ever. Hmmm.

What helped Reagan and the country get out of the 1980-82 recession? Don't tell Republicans, but it was, in part, deficit spending.

It’s true that Obama hasn’t had a great couple of weeks here, but as of this writing it is only February and as we all know, quite a bit can happen between now and November. Much of this doom and gloom prognostication is based, of course, on the dreadful unemployment rate, ongoing foreclosures, and utterly legitimate outrage on the left and right about the smugness and bloated paychecks of Wall Street types. But it also rests on the news media’s increasing addiction to speculation instead of reporting, to constantly trying to predict the future (which doesn’t cost much) instead of reporting in detail on the present or even reminding us of the past.

So let’s look back to a time nearly as bad as this, 1980-1982, known then as the Reagan recession.” In 1980, Reagan got just over 50 percent of the popular vote, but roared in with 489 Electoral College votes. Then, in December, the country began plunging into a recession. Unemployment soared to nearly 10 percent in 1982, and it was coupled with an inflation rate of somewhere between 12 and 14 percent and interest rates that went as high as 21 percent. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates to fight inflation, and this eventually worked, but not until millions had lost their jobs and homes. By November 1982, the country was experiencing its worst recession since the Great Depression, with 17,000 failed businesses. Congress also increasingly deregulated the banking industry, including savings and loans banks (remember that scandal?), expanding their lending capabilities, which, guess what, led to speculative lending, especially for real estate. By the middle of 1982, 42 banks had failed – the most since the Depression; a year later, another 49 had failed.

So what happened in the 1982 midterm elections? Under the circumstances, and hardly surprising, the Republicans lost 27 House seats to the Democrats. In the Senate, the Democrats won one seat, leaving the Republicans with 54 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 46 (note, no super majority” there!). And as for Reagan, whom we remember as the Great Communicator,” his approval rating was a horrid 35 percent as he prepared for his 1983 State of the Union address. There was much talk of Reagan – Reagan! – as a one-term president.

What helped Reagan, and the country get out of this? Don’t tell the Republicans, but it was, in part, deficit spending, something Reagan in fact became known for. This public spending was as controversial then as it is now for not adhering to conservative fiscal principles.

But what happened? The economy started to improve, and by November 1983 Reagan’s approval ratings were back above 50 percent. And by October of 1984? Fifty-eight percent. As we all know, he whupped Walter Mondale, 59 percent to 41 percent, winning a whopping 525 electoral votes, making the notion of his being a one-term president” seem absurd.

Now all this is forgotten as our ahistorical media seek to magnify conflict and disorder – their meat and potatoes – and suggest Obama is done for. It’s not that Obama and Congressional Democrats don’t have their work cut out for them. But according to the latest Gallup poll, Obama’s approval ratings are, as of this writing, back at 50 percent. He and the Democrats seem to be taking note of the 60 percent of Americans who believe the rich pay too little in taxes. Gallup reports that a May 2009 poll showed 69 percent of Americans support allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in December reported that 65 percent favor government efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A December CNN poll found that nearly 60 percent favor stimulating the economy, even if it means less deficit reduction. All of these are part of Obama’s agenda.

So it’s really too soon to say it’s curtains for Obama. But as Robert Kuttner recently pointed out in The Huffington Post, Obama really does have to get over his bipartisan dreams. Did Reagan pander to Democrats? Nope. Obama should fight for his principles, lead Congress (where the Democrats, despite the election of Scott Brown, hold considerable majorities), and start hammering home that the Republicans are, indeed, the Party of NO, and if people don’t get a jobs bill, a decent healthcare bill, environmental reform and reform of the financial industry, then it’s the elephant’s fault.

Obama himself said in New Hampshire, Suddenly everyone says, Oh no, it’s over.’ Well, no, it’s not over.” Amen.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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