JONATHAN CHAIT SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
Michael Scherer, via Mike Allen, reports that the White House is listening to cheerful historical analogies:
In June, ... White House chief of staff Bill Daley arranged a secret retreat for his senior team at Fort McNair ... Historian Michael Beschloss went along as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone’s mind: How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment? The historian’s lecture provided a lift for Barack Obama’s team. No iron law in politics is ever 100% accurate, Beschloss told the group. Two Presidents in the past century—Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984—won re-election amid substantial economic suffering. Both used the same two-part strategy: FDR and Reagan argued that the country, though in pain, was improving and that their opponents, anchored in past failures, would make things worse. ... The President’s aides, all but resigned to unemployment above 8% on Election Day, now see in Roosevelt and Reagan a plausible path to victory. They intend to make sure voters believe a year from now that their fortunes are improving, and they plan to persuade the American people that a Republican in the White House would be a step backward. ...
This is a reporter summarizing another's reporter's summary of an event no reporter actually attended, so we are looking through the glass darkly. That caveat aside, this sounds like pure delusion. Roosevelt in 1936 and Reagan in 1984 had high unemployment, yes. But they also had very rapid economic growth. Here's the picture in 1936:
These were situations where the public could discern rapid improvement from a bad situation. No such thing is likely to be the case next year. 1936 and 1984 are not good lessons. They're counter-examples, like learning how to handle a drought by studying what happened during Hurricane Katrina.
Again, it's hard to say exactly what the administration thinks these examples mean. The article does report, "Obama will try to divert the public’s frustration with Washington toward his main enemy, the GOP." That is the obviously correct strategy. Americans are very, very unhappy. Obama's task is to persuade them to blame Republicans. Running an election taking credit for, well, anything is a terrible idea.