This week, President Obama has started to tout his economic record more forcefully. Buzzfeed’s Zeke Miller has highlighted the new emphasis in a piece headlined “Obama Discovers Morning in America,” which begins, “President Obama is finding his inner Ronald Reagan.” Liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent is thrilled by the new messaging. But I don’t think this strategy will be effective. The “Morning in America” theme works when it’s self evidently true. If you go back and watch Reagan’s famous 1984 “Morning in America” ad, it doesn’t bombard the viewer with statistics, because he didn’t need to make the hard sell.
It’s worth taking a look at some of the key economic indicators to demonstrate how much stronger the Reagan recovery was at this time in 1984, when Reagan ran for re-election. Unemployment stood at 7.8 percent this September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from a high of 10 percent. In September 1984, unemployment was at 7.3 percent, which was down from a peak of 10.8 percent. But unemployment numbers in isolation don’t tell the full story, because they could go down if people drop out of the workforce or accept part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work. On the jobs front, Reagan’s economy created a net of 4.3 million jobs from February 1981 through September 1984, but Obama’s economy lost 61,000 over the comparable time period. This number is more striking when one considers that the U.S. population is nearly 80 million people larger than it was in 1984. Another significant factor is growth. In the 14th quarter of Obama’s presidency, which ended in June, the economy grew at an anemic 1.3 percent rate. (This is the most recent quarterly data we have available.) In the comparable quarter of the Reagan presidency, growth soared by 7.1 percent. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that when Reagan was first elected over Jimmy Carter, inflation was one of the leading economic problems. During 1980, inflation soared by 12.5 percent. But in 1984, it had shrunk to 3.9 percent. In contrast, inflation wasn’t a problem when Obama took office.
It’s true that Obama doesn’t need to win by Reagan’s 49-state landslide to get re-elected. He may be able to squeak through with a narrow victory merely by convincing Americans that there has been some economic improvement. Yet such a sales pitch takes time, and it’s hard to make this case sink in with just a few weeks left in the election, with the two domestic policy debates behind him already. By boasting about his economic record, Obama also runs the risk of seeming out of touch with the struggles still facing the middle class and of being undercut if the unemployment rate spikes in the final report due out the Friday before Election Day.