But what was already an unprecedentedly dreadful climate for the Democrats is looking darker by the day. If unemployment is still around 10 percent this November, it’s difficult to see how they hold the House; if unemployment stays at 9 percent into 2012, it’s very difficult to see how Barack Obama wins re-election. I stand by my contention that ideology as well as the woeful economy is dragging the Democrats down, but there does come a point where only the economy matters: Obama could spend the next three years channeling Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Silent Cal, and he still isn’t going to get re-elected if 9 percent of the country is out of work.
Was it an “unprecedentedly dreadful climate”? Is it growing darker? 1982 provides a precedent of a similarly dreadful political climate for the presidential party, so the current climate is not unprecedented. The ’81-’82 recession was actually more severe and damaging to the administration than this recession has been, but Reagan survived it. During the tail end of the recession, Reagan’s approval slumped well below where Obama’s approval stands today. Indeed, if Obama’s approval ever dipped as low as Reagan’s 1982 numbers, there would be a great deal of caterwauling that his political career was over. Reagan’s political opposition in Congress was much greater, and he lacked the majorities in Congress that Obama enjoys. It is true that the last Democratic President to have similar majorities was Carter, but Carter came into office with majorities that were built on top of pre-existing Democratic majorities. Obama has come into office very soon after Democrats regained power in Congress after over a decade in the minority. That has to make some difference in how the public judges the two parties and their fitness for running branches of government.
Obviously much depends on whether or not unemployment remains as high as it is, but not only did Reagan recover from the setbacks in the ’82 midterms amid similarly high unemployment, but he went on to win one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history two years later. Regardless of economic conditions, I would be very wary of assuming that the public will act in a certain way over two years from now. Much will depend on the quality of the candidate the GOP nominates, and just as much will depend on the perceived economic improvement between now and then that the incumbent will claim as his own.
Unemployment is at 10% right now, and it is quite easy to see how Democrats hold the House. As satisfying as a protest vote against the majority party will be, it is very doubtful that the public is ready to trust the GOP with any sort of responsibility in the federal government after the hash they made of things during their time in power. So long as there is measurable improvement in economic indicators, the GOP ought to be worried that it has reached its peak ten months too early.
Right now, lockstep GOP opposition to the stimulus bill appears to be on the side of public opinion, but if there is anything that we have seen over the last few months it is that public opinion is easily changeable depending on circumstances. If the delayed 2010 spending reduces unemployment, even temporarily, the opponents of the bill will be left scrambling for cover. Suddenly most of the people who have already declared the bill to be a waste of money could turn on a dime and a decide that the money was well-spent after all. If the public is ultimately results-oriented, as we keep hearing, any positive change in economic conditions is going to work against the opposition strategy of rejecting everything.