Team Obama Finds Hope for 2012 in a History Lesson

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Weeks before the debt-limit showdown came to a head, White House chief of staff Bill Daley held an unannounced retreat for his senior staff at Fort McNair, an Army base near the southern tip of the District of Columbia. The agenda for the June confab was wide-ranging, including a lecture of sorts from the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. The question Daley asked him to address was the one on everyone’s mind these days in the West Wing: How does a U.S. President win re-election with an unemployment rate far higher than voters can bear?

The answer Beschloss provided gave some lift to Obama’s team. No law in politics is ever 100% accurate, he said. Two Presidents in the last century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, won re-election amid substantial economic suffering. Both used the same basic strategy. They argued that the country, though in pain, was improving, and that the ideas of their opponents, anchored in past failures, would make things worse.

Though Beschloss did not intend to give political advice, that is the spirit in which it was received by those in Obama’s inner orbit. In fact, if you want a one-sentence summary of the strategic framework guiding the White House and the Obama campaign as we enter an election year, the two-part strategy outlined above pretty much fits the bill. The White House sees in the models of Roosevelt and Reagan a path to victory.

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So what does that mean for the coming weeks? It means Obama has twin goals for his big economic policy speech next week. He wants to put in place policies that get the country growing at a noticeable rate by next year, and he wants to continue to nurture the theme, especially for independents, that the Republican policies will push the country in the wrong direction.

This framework, which has been set up under the direction of Daley and David Plouffe, Obama’s message strategist, is designed to be win-win. If Republicans go along with the next round of stimulus measures, Obama will have a stronger economic case to make in the spring. If they block the measures, Obama may have an easier time arguing that a Republican in the White House will not move the country forward.

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In 1936 Roosevelt ran for re-election against Alf Landon, a moderate Republican from Kansas. But Roosevelt made the election about the Hoover years, running a starkly populist campaign that accused Republicans of representing “with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” “For twelve years this nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government,” Roosevelt announced in an address at Madison Square Garden shortly before the election. “The nation looked to Government but the Government looked away.”

Similarly, Reagan, who benefited from an election-year rate of economic growth that Obama will not enjoy, made his 1984 race against Walter Mondale into a sort of referendum on the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s most famous television spot of the cycle, Morning in America, ended with this question: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

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Just because the strategy has worked before, of course, should not bring too much comfort to the Obama team. One could list at length the many differences between 2012 and the years that Roosevelt and Reagan found victory. One could also observe the similarities between 1980 and 2012. Just as President Carter’s team dismissed the conservative California governor as unpalatable in a general election, Democrats are now saying much the same about the emerging Republican field.

But at least Obama’s aides have a clear theory of the case. And given the trying circumstance in which they find themselves, that’s a comforting thing.