I’d argue that ever modern American presidential election comes down to one fundamental question: do we change or do we continue?
In 2008, Barack Obama obviously was about “change.” At every opportunity he tied John McCain to the administration of George W. Bush. In the narrative logic of that campaign, McCain, the old, establishment guy, was continuity and Obama, the young, fresh face, was change.
As Obama looks to his increasingly complicated re-election, some of his top staffers are taking comfort in history. They best not take too much comfort.
TIME reports that Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently invited presidential historian Michael Beschloss to a quiet retreat with top White House staffers to talk about whether any president facing eight or nine percent unemployment and steadily declining approval numbers can be re-elected.
Beschloss reportedly cited two examples – Franklin Roosevelt’s first re-election in 1936, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, and Ronald Reagan’s “it’s morning in America” triumph over Walter Mondale in 1984.
Clearly Obama must try to do what FDR and The Gipper successfully pulled off in tying the nation’s economic misery to the failed policies of the president who came before. It was fairly easy for Roosevelt to continue to make the dour Herbert Hoover his fall guy and Republicans in 1936 were badly divided over how to respond to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Obama today, Roosevelt felt pressure from the left to respond ever more forcefully to the nation’s economic problems and he responded by shifting his rhetoric to attack big business and conservatives who had resisted his efforts to reform and recover.
Bashing “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” FDR famously said, “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
The hapless GOP candidate, Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, a moderate Republican, carried but two states prompting Roosevelt campaign manager Jim Farley to quip, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” FDR actually ran a good deal stronger in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in 1936 than he had four years earlier.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan sought re-election in the environment of a sputtering national economy and succeeded in making the election a referendum on the previous administration. Reagan and his team were masterful at conveying a sense that the country had turned a corner under his watch and the nation would be foolish to go back to the bad old days of Jimmy Carter. It didn’t hurt Reagan’s prospects that Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, a daily reminder during the campaign of the regime Reagan has turned out of office in 1980. Mondale, like Landon an exemplary American and all together decent guy, turned out to have been a much better veep than a presidential candidate.
Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia and, in fact, held Reagan under 52% in only two other states. It was a classic presidential blowout.
So, perhaps the Obama team can take some comfort in the fact that FDR and Reagan turned the tables on the prevailing wisdom that holds that the economy generally trumps all when it comes to re-electing a president, but at least one other factor was at play in 1936 and 1984.
Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were tough, seasoned political fighters at the top of their games. They defined their enemies with passion and clarity; Roosevelt “welcoming” the hatred of his critic-enemies and Reagan carrying the fight to the Democrats.
Accepting the GOP nomination, Reagan said in 1984, “Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let’s take them on a little stroll down memory lane. Let’s remind them of how a 4.8-percent inflation rate in 1976 became back-to-back years of double-digit inflation – the worst since World War II – punishing the poor and elderly, young couple striving to start their new lives, and working people struggling to make ends meet.”
The question is not whether Obama will attempt to make his re-election a referendum on whether the country goes back to the “failed” approach of the Bush years. He has no choice but to run that campaign. His unpopular health reform legislation, never adequately explained to the public and now it’s way too late to try, and the economic stimulus that may well have kept the economy from getting seriously worse, but still seen by many as a failure, are not a record to run on.
No, the question for the cerebral Obama is whether he can find the fight to define the coming election in terms that present a real choice about the country’s future versus its past. In stark terms, can he make it about the good guys versus the evil forces arrayed against him?
FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984 ran against the odds and their enemies and, in both cases, they beat the odds by making the campaign about something bigger than themselves. We’ll soon enough see whether Obama is built of the same stuff.