Not so fast. Some embattled presidents overcome their midterm slump
Much has been made nationally about a midterm election backlash for Democrats because of Obama's performance and response to challenges that have come his way. Guest columnist Margaret P. O'Mara examines two other presidents who overcame similar challenges.
Special to The Times
YOU all know the story.
Millions of Americans are unemployed after electing a president who promised hope and change. The new president has scored some great legislative victories but a polarized Congress and an angry electorate remains unappeased. The opposition party predicts decisive victories in the coming midterm elections. An environmental disaster spreads destruction across a huge swath of the country. A Louisiana politician announces that "our president has failed in his promise" to assist the people.
But the president in question is Franklin Roosevelt, not Barack Obama (and the Louisianian is Huey Long, not Bobby Jindal). The first-term troubles faced by Roosevelt — and, 50 years later, by Ronald Reagan — provide important historical perspective on how some past presidents have transcended apparently insuperable challenges.
Seen in that light, the BP oil spill need not be Obama's Iranian hostage crisis, or his Hurricane Katrina — politically crippling events that helped doom the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Responsibility for freeing the hostages taken captive in the Tehran embassy in 1979 fell exclusively on the government and military. After Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, government failures enlarged the scope of human suffering and physical damage, and prolonged the recovery.
In the case of the spill, the current administration is neither the original culprit nor the principal party responsible for fixing the problems. BP, and the oil industry more generally, are the main villains in this sorry tale.
Roosevelt and Reagan are better starting points for comparison. Like Obama, both took office amid rampant economic and social crises. Like Obama, both instituted sweeping reforms. Roosevelt vastly expanded the scope of government. Reagan dismantled much of the New Deal order that Roosevelt had created. And both had to cope with unexpected challenges at home and abroad.
Less than two years into their respective terms, despite herculean efforts to the contrary, both Roosevelt and Reagan seemed to have fallen far short of their loftiest ambitions. Some even argued that their policies were making things worse. The left pilloried FDR for failing to enact more radical solutions to unemployment and poverty. The right assailed him for infringing on free markets and individual rights. Nearly every stakeholder — from businesses and unions to Congress and policy bureaucrats — found something to dislike in his signature economic program, the National Recovery Administration.
Although federal action stopped the epidemic of bank failures and the unemployment rate declined from its 1933 peak, in 1935 more than 20 percent of American workers remained jobless. Roosevelt also had an unanticipated environmental crisis on his hands — the Dust Bowl — that was ravaging the midsection of the country and the farmers who toiled there.
A half-century later, the Reagan administration was similarly besieged. After winning passage of an across-the-board 25 percent tax cut in the summer of 1981, Reagan began cutting government spending on social programs. By the summer of 1982, the nation found itself in an economic slump that quickly became labeled the "Reagan Recession."
As midterm elections loomed, Democratic fingers pointed to the president's economic policies as the source of the nation's economic woes. Double-digit inflation persisted and the unemployment rate passed 10 percent. Civil war raged in Lebanon, hitting home in October 1983 with the deaths of 241 Americans in the Beirut barracks bombing.
Yet Roosevelt and Reagan emerged from these crises to win re-election. Their political turnarounds resulted not just from their ability to communicate with voters and instill confidence in their leadership, but also because their policies started to have positive, measurable effects on voters' pocketbooks.
Even their fiercest critics eventually conceded that both men's policies had, in fact, been extraordinarily effective in spurring later economic growth. Ultimately, the programs enacted in these early, politically bumpy periods not only secured those presidents' political legacies but fundamentally altered the American political terrain.
Fifteen months into his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress about the progress already made in fighting the Great Depression, and on the work yet to be done. The agenda before them was straightforward, Roosevelt said. "People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours."
These are the things that presidents of both parties have tried to accomplish ever since.
Will Barack Obama be able to deliver on these kinds of promises? Will he convince a beleaguered electorate that he has the right solutions for our current economic and environmental woes? Will his early legislative achievements like health-care reform give the economy the jolt it needs? We don't yet know. But the experience of his two predecessors cautions us not to rush to judgment. Long-term results, not yesterday's polling numbers, are the true measure of a president's success.Margaret P. O'Mara is an assistant professor of history at the University of Washington.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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