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Reagan and Obama -- Comparing Two Presidents

Thirty years ago today, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office for president for the first time. Two years ago today, Barack Obama did the same.

While 28 years – nearly three decades – separate those two historical events, some remarkable similarities link the two presidents.

• Both came into office faced by a serious economic crisis.

• Both inherited wars – Reagan the Cold War and the Iranian hostages; Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Both were expected to perform miracles on the economic and war fronts. When they didn’t, many were disappointed.

• So that both, when they came to the end of their first two years in office, found that their prospects for re-election were far from assured.

We know how things turned out for Reagan. Obama is still a work in progress.

Their approaches to the economy were different. Reagan, faced with double-digit inflation and interest rates, focused mostly on government spending and tax cuts. He compromised with Democrats to achieve them.

Obama, confronted by bank failures and auto-industry collapse, chose higher government spending, with tax cuts playing a smaller role. He chose not to compromise with Republicans until recently.

Reagan managed to win a second term by a landslide. But in January 1983 after two years in office, Reagan, like Obama in January 2011, was in political trouble. Unemployment was at 10.4 percent, a full percentage point higher than last month’s 9.4 percent. People were calling “The Gipper” a one-term president.

At the same time, Reagan’s job approval rating by late January 1983 hit the lowest point of his presidency – 35 percent, according to the Gallup poll.

Obama job approval, so far, never sunk that low, although he hit 41 percent in late October, just before the midterm elections. He stands today at 49 percent in the daily Gallup poll, inching upward since the Tucson shootings nearly two weeks ago.

History suggests that presidents who maintain job approvals around 50 percent usually win re-election. 

Obama seems to work overtime trying to do just that. More than any president in recent memory, he makes great efforts to show the people he is working tirelessly in their behalf, skillfully using and juggling all media – print, broadcast, digital and Internet - to convey his messages, burnish his image and sell his policies.

While everyone isn’t buying, many give him credit for hard work. They see him on TV or hear him on radio nearly every day thanks to a breakneck schedule and a skilled White House spin machine. It carefully stages of the president and his wife in a flood of positive events, interviews and photo ops. And it deftly manages and manipulates a news media that still have not brushed all the stars from their eyes when it comes to covering, examining and questioning this president.

Therefore, while most might not always know what Obama is saying out there as they go about their daily lives, they see and hear him everywhere and say, at least subliminally, “He seems to be trying. He seems to be working hard.” That helps give them pause when pollsters ask, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job President Obama is doing.”

How did Reagan recover from his two-year doldrums and win re-election by a landslide in 1984? There were many factors, including a long, bruising fight among eight candidates for the Democratic nomination. And like Obama, Reagan was a good speechmaker and campaigner. Many also liked Reagan’s sunny All-American personality, something Obama has trouble projecting. He tends to paint a bleaker picture of the nation and apologize for past behaviors in foreign affairs. He also sometimes blames others for his problems, some might say too much.

But the biggest factor in Reagan’s ’84 victory was that the economy came back, something Obama is starting to see stirrings of in recent weeks.

By October 1984, one month before the election, unemployment fell three full percentage points, from 10.4 percent to 7.4 percent. Double-digit inflation dropped below 10 percent. People were steadily going back to work and eagerly willing to buy the Reagan re-election campaign’s upbeat, flag-waving slogan, “It’s Morning Again in America”

Voters bought it so completely that Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states, losing only Minnesota, home state of his Democratic rival, former vice president Walter Mondale. Even Mondale’s selection of New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate, the first woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket, didn’t help. Reagan even won a majority of the female vote.

When Obama took office two years ago today, Gallup put his incoming job approval at 68 percent, much higher than Reagan’s initial rating of 51 percent, a bare majority. But just two months later, Reagan’s approval jumped to 67 percent after John Hinckley tried to assassinate him. 

It was at that time, thanks to Reagan’s humorous and self-deprecating handling of the life-threatening situation – “Tell me you are Republican,” he pleaded to a surgeon as he was wheeled into the operating room - that a still-wary American public began to bond with him.

But all the good will in the world does not help when the economy goes sour. Reagan’s ratings sunk as unemployment soared. And so did Obama’s. Now the economy is looking like it is coming back. It helped Reagan. Will some of that old magic rub off on Obama?

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches journalism and politics in The Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University.  As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.