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The ‘shellacking’ electoral lessons

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 5, 2010

In 1982, 21 months into his presidency, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating stood at 42 percent sliding from 51 percent at his inauguration on its way to a low of 35 percent — hardly the type of lofty nostalgic remembrance for those who memorialize Reagan by naming airports after him and proposing that his likeness be carved on Mount Rushmore. But for Reagan, conditions worsened during his tenure as unemployment rose from 7.2 percent when he took office to peak in November of 1982 at 10.8 percent while personal income stagnated to a mere 1.4 percent in the final quarter of the year. So while high unemployment conditions and an economic emergency greeted Barrack Obama at his inauguration, growth steadily rose — albeit anemically.

While the American political season has become onerously long, the collective voter’s memory remains notoriously short. A political week can sometimes morph into an eternity, just as voters overwhelmingly broke for Reagan after he and President Jimmy Carter held their one and only debate a mere week before the 1980 election. During this election cycle, the electorate easily and quickly forgot political history. Therefore, one might view Obama’s self-proclaimed “shellacking” as less a sign of future doom for the president, especially since the Republican-leaning Gallup poll shows Obama’s approval rating currently hovering at 44 percent, which is above Reagan’s rating at this point in his presidency.

Reagan lost 27 Republican seats during his first mid-term election cycle, staunchly entrenching an already Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Obama lost 58 house seats, about half dozen more than the 52 Democrats gained in the last two elections, but lost only six of the 14 senators previously gained. Reagan’s first accomplishment was a massive tax reduction. Yet the currently sitting Democratic Congress passed 25 separate tax cuts in 21 months, lowering today’s rates back to levels not seen since the 1950s. Democrats shrunk the federal deficit from 10 percent of GDP in Fiscal Year 2009 to 5.9 percent in Fiscal Year 2010. Was the electorate well informed of these accomplishments?

One might also ask what other earth-shaking policies have the congressional Democrats and Obama enacted that imperil our nation’s direction so much to warrant this week’s electoral rebuke. The president first signed the fair pay act that guaranteed equal pay for women. The stimulus package instituted the largest tax cut ever, while promoting clean energy and revamping the college student loan system by ending waste of federal subsidies that paid banks to serve as private for-profit middle man, thus freeing money for more loans for more Americans. In an interview this week, George W. Bush defended the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout as necessary to prevent the total collapse of our economic system in a brief, succinct way in his “gee whiz” country frat boy manner that Obama never crystallized in his own easy-to-understand message.

The financial reform act curbed excesses that caused recession through regulation of Wall Street that protects the investments of Americans on “Main Street.” The “Cash for Clunkers” program gave cash credits directly to Americans to help stimulate the economy, the auto industry and reduce oil dependency as well as improve the air quality. The credit card reform prevents longstanding abrupt fee increases for consumers, and a new consumer financial protection agency was created.

Democrats appropriated the most resources ever for veterans by providing more access to caregivers, including female veterans, and consolidated the fragmented appropriations process so that veterans programs are now quickly and efficiently funded through Congress. Democrats tripled size of public service opportunities through AmeriCorps for young Americans. The Democratic Congress enacted a new land conservation law, gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco and nicotine, passed a hate crimes bill based on sexual discrimination and enacted a law that provides health insurance for 4 million previously uncovered children. Most of these many accomplishments are not issues to be repudiated by the electorate.

Obviously, the overall health care reform has been the most contentious issue of the Obama presidency. Yet it includes 30 million more Americans, allows parental policies to cover their children up to age 26, ensures that insurance companies sell policies to people with expensive pre-existing conditions, eliminates lifetime and annual caps on benefits, reduces costs that help reduce the federal deficit and is not a European or single payer system. Are these qualities of the initiative that warrant a “shellacking” at the ballot box? The answer was obviously, “yes.”

President Obama is the academic, professorial type. Unlike Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton who could connect to every American, Obama at times seems distantly detached. Campaigning a month before this week’s election cannot undo the year and a half of loud, public opposition who defined his policies. He should have sold each step of his legislative successes.

Incoming Speaker John Boehner said this week that Republicans will “work on behalf of the American people,” which translates that the president better do it the Republican way. Boehner said, “We’ll work with the administration when they agree with the American people and oppose them when they don’t.”

For President Obama, his campaign has begun for 2012, and he must learn to better annunciate his policies so that he, like Ronald Reagan, can win reelection.


Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.