Later today, President Barack Obama will deliver a widely-anticipated speech in Ohio in an attempt to “reframe” the debate over the economy. Insiders have told the media that Obama will not offer any new economic initiatives in the address – and in fact, that’s the entire point. The President will argue, much like another President did 30 years earlier, that the nation doesn’t need a change in direction, but simply to stay the course.
If that seems like a far cry from “Change,” one of Obama’s campaign slogans from four years ago, that’s because Obama still sees this argument as change from what preceded him. In the last few days, Obama has returned to the 2008 strategy of running against George W. Bush and painting his opponent as Bush’s doppleganger. That worked for Obama four years ago when he ran against John McCain in an era of Bush-fatigue and economic crisis. Now that Obama has to run with an economic record of his own, he and his campaign have come to the conclusion that the only way to “reframe” his economic policies is to cast them as a long crusade against Bush economics.
Can Obama succeed in arguing that voters need to allow him more time for his policies to succeed? The contrasts between the two “stay the course” arguments might be instructive.
Ronald Reagan actually used the phrase “stay the course” during his first midterm elections in 1982. Hammered by a double-dip recession and skyrocketing unemployment figures in his first year as President, Reagan had to play defense on his economic policies. The jobless rate rose more than three full points between Reagan’s inauguration and the midterms from 7.4 percent to 10.8 percent, peaking exactly at the worst time for Republicans.
Democrats hit the campaign trail with the message that Reaganomics had failed, openly ridiculing “stay the course” as an absurdity. Reagan pushed back in much the same manner Obama will today, arguing that his policies had not had enough time to work, and that staying the course would bring economic prosperity. Reagan’s efforts led to mixed results; Democrats picked up 27 seats in the House to extend their majority to 103, but failed to wrest control of the Senate away from Republicans, who actually picked up a seat and extended their upper-chamber majority to eight. Faced with a status-quo result, Reagan continued his policies – and two years later, with unemployment falling dramatically and the American economy booming, he won a historic landslide victory for a second term in office.
Clearly, Obama will adopt Reagan’s strategy with the hope of duplicating Reagan’s success. However, there are clear differences between the two situations. Let’s start with the timeframe. Reagan had been in office less than two years when he made the “stay the course” argument. Democrats argued that Reagan had been given enough time for his policies to succeed, but didn’t convince enough voters. By the time Reagan got to his re-election campaign, he had already won the argument – and Obama has lost it.