By all rights, President Barack Obama should have been beaten handily by Mitt Romney. Usually, an incumbent President wins if the economy is doing well --- think of 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected, think of 1972 when Richard Nixon was re-elected. If the economy is not doing well, an incumbent President loses: Think of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H, W. Bush in 1992. There are “close calls” in this analysis – the two that come to mind are the successful re-election campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1984 (which resulted in a landslide victory) and George W. Bush in 2004 (which resulted in a real squeaker). How did the Presidential contest of 2008 stack up against these precedents?
First of all, it is obvious that President Obama had none of the advantages of either the Nixon or the Clinton re-election. In 1972, the rate of growth of GDP was 5.3%, almost 2% faster than the previous year. In 1996, the rate of growth of GDP was 3.7%. Over 1% faster than the previous year. Unemployment in 1972 was 5.6% – not great by the standards set in the prosperous 1960s but still lower than in the previous year. Unemployment in 1996 was 5.4% but it had been steadily falling since its peak in 1992 when President Clinton had been elected. By contrast, President Obama presided over an economy where the rate of growth of real GDP had been 1.8% in 2011 which was SLOWER than it had been in 2010, the first year of so-called recovery. Unemployment had been coming down but ever so slowly – barely getting below 8% in the last two reports before the election.
It does appear that President Obama was in better shape than Jimmy Carter. In 1980, President Carter had presided over a short but significant recession. The unemployment rate had jumped to over 7 percent whereas in the previous year it had been under 6 percent. The rate of growth for the entire year was negative. To make matters even worse, the rate of inflation was a whopping 13.5% in 1980 which was higher than the already unpleasant 12% in 1979. It was in this election campaign that former Governor Ronald Reagan uttered the unanswerable rhetorical question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” But consider the case of George H.W. Bush. In 1992, the economy grew at a good clip (over 3%) and the recession had officially ended the previous year. True, the unemployment rate was higher in 1992 (7.5%) than in the previous year. Perhaps one important difference is that the public felt that President Bush didn't care about the sluggish recovery. Unlike previous Presidents, he had not proposed a tax cut to speed the recovery – in fact he had signed a tax increase just about the time that the recession began in 1990. By contrast, President Obama had proposed and signed the largest stimulus package in history and had made decisions to involve the government directly in rescuing both GM and Chrysler. Nevertheless, President Obama’s economy was clearly in worse shape than when George H,W. Bush ran for re-election – and he lost.
What about Presidents Reagan's and George W. Bush's re-elections? In Reagan's case, the economy was roaring in 1984. The rate of growth of over 7% after having grown at 4.5% in the first year of recovery. Unemployment was 7.5% but it had been over 9.5% the previous year. In W's case, growth was 3.5% which was faster than in the previous year. Unemployment had fallen to 5.5% which was lower than its highest point during the previous year. Recall that Bush won by a nose – and he had the advantage of being a “war” President in the wake of 9/11.
So why did President Obama win? I think enough voters who had previously voted for President Obama realized that the economy that he had inherited had been nearly destroyed by the financial crisis and enough of them sensed that this was connected to bad policies pursued by the George W. Bush Administration. In addition, I do believe that Tea Party extremism and Governor Romney’s commitment to the top 1% of the population in terms of tax and other policies turned off a lot of people. Unfortunately, as we saw in 2010, the frustrations of ordinary people with the slow pace of recovery and with what the propagandists call “too much” government control could lead them back to the right wing, such as occurred with the rise of the so-called Tea Party. In my personal opinion, these folks coupled with the arrogance of the top 1% (as evidenced by the kinds of things Romney, Bill O’Reilley, Paul Ryan and others have been saying in “explanation” for Romney’s loss – namely that President Obama has given people “stuff” – that a large percentage of the electorate has been bribed by government generosity) could swing us back towards extreme right-wing policies – the kind that have been practiced by Republican dominated state governments during the last two years – from Virginia’s ultra-sound law to the union stripping laws in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere --- to voter suppression efforts all over the place. I see a real danger of an American version of fascism where the Tea Party provides the shock troops particularly in off year elections and the top 1% provides the money and the policies. Aside from union stripping and an all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights, I see the political agenda at the State level including redistricting which has kept the House in Republican hands even though nationwide more people voted for Democratic House candidates than for Republican house candidates and more attempts at voter suppression. The only defense against fascism is the mobilized population – the population that stood in line for hours to vote on November 6. I hope the new majority continues to be vigilant. The Tea Party and their dangerous policies are still in control in many states – and they will be back seeking to take Congress in 2014 and the White House in 2016. We have not seen the last of these dangerous people.
[For information on the role of the religious right in creating a move towards fascism in the US I cannot recommend more highly Chris Hedges’ book AMERICAN FASCISTS.]
Michael Meeropol is visiting professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author of Surrender, How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution.
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