For Barack Obama, the the three-word rejoinder to Republican attacks on his handling of the economy quite rightly ought to be: Stay the course.
That was the slogan for Ronald Reagan's second and successful presidential campaign. And while conservatives and especially Republicans still revere the late Reagan, the truth is that, in terms of the US job outlook, he was in almost the same exact place as Obama is today -- arguably, perhaps, in worse shape than Obama when you take other economic factors into account.
In October 1984, the month before the landslide presidential election that secured Reagan's second term, the national unemployment rate was 7.4%. It had declined markedly from a high of 10.8 percent over two months in 1982. Reagan's team focused on that slow but sure progress from awful to mediocre in proclaiming that the country was on the right path out of recession, although the job was far from finished.
Today, under Obama, the unemployment rate has stubbornly held at a shade over 8 percent for all of 2012 so far. When Obama took over for George W. Bush, the rate was 7.8 percent and on a fast-developing upward rise, as part of an economic collapse arguably greater than any since the Great Depression.
The jobless rate peaked at 10 percent for one month, October 2009 -- nearly a full point lower than the multi-month peak under Reagan -- and began declining thereafter, as Obama's policies along with hesitant but substantive monetary adjustments by the Fed began taking hold.
So, Reagan and Obama's first terms approached their end with very similar experiences in the matter of jobs. Indeed, the unemployement rate over Reagan's eight years averaged 7.5 percent, within a point of what Obama has overseen in the past year. Yet few voters then or now seem to have perceived Reagan as an economic failure -- and, remember, the recession Obama inherited was far worse than the serious but still lesser malaise that Reagan faced.
Meanwhile, a couple of other key economic differences further demonstrate just how well Obama has done under the circumstances.
For one thing, Reagan presided over a relatively typical increase in public employment, which helped lower the overall unemployment rate. Obama, meanwhile, has had to deal with dramatically reduced public unemployment. Adding up state, federal and local government performance, the past three years have been the worst on record for public sector job losses, with more than 700,000 public employees laid off -- many of them public school teachers. And public-sector job layoffs are likely to continue.
Economist Paul Krugman holds that if public employment had grown under Obama the way it did under George W. Bush, another 1.3 million Americans would be employed, and the unemployment rate would now be 7% or less, more than a full percentage point below the current level.
As ThinkProgress.org has detailed, Obama's maligned recovery and stimulus act stemmed the public-sector job meltdown awhile. Unanimously oposed by Republican legislators, the stimulus act for about a year provided federal dollars to lower units of government that greatly helped retain public employees even when those units were bleeding badly thanks to the economic crash . But the stimulus money ran out, and congressional Republicans blocked all but a few Democratic efforts to extend cash assistance.
If House Republicans had agreed to continuing the public-sector job support, Obama likely would be heading into November with a national unemployment rate in the low seven-percent rage -- equal if not better than the number Ronald Reagan's touters cited in 1984 as "morning in America."
The other big difference between the Reagan economic recovery and today's situation is that Reagan presided over huge, double-digit inflation that badly pinched consumers. The rampant inflation was not really of his own making, but rather an outgrowth of the Fed's tight-money policies, but neither was the Gipper blamed for that ding in everyone's pocketbook. Mainstream banks offered mortgage interest rates reaching 20 percent in many markets. Obama, by contrast, presides over very low inflation, which may be the one thing at the moment that is keeping the US economy afloat.
Obama has said that he patterned his presidency in some respects after Reagan's own approach to governing. Interesting approach, coming from a man many Republicans regard as a socialist or communist. But there is resonance between the two presidents, at least on some practical, statistical level, if not philosophically.
Presidents can only do so much to influence the economy and job creation; they simply are not responsible for many components of inflation and unemployment. In Obama's case, for example, we must look to the badly under-regulated, reckless financial investment markets to explain the Great Recession. Reagan arrived at the tail end of a stubborn "staflation" problem that bedeviled the economy for more than a decade, beginning in the Nixon years.
Despite their limits, however, presidents can push the economy in directions that lead to healing. For instance, both presidents Bush and Reagan abandoned their anti-Keynesian rhetoric in the face of serious economic distress and agreed to major government infusions of cash (for the younger Bush, that included the trillion-dollar TARP program whose origin is often wrongly assigned to Obama; for Reagan, that included serious tax hikes in his second term). Obama has been supremely pragmatic, often moving rightward in a mostly futile effort to enlist bipartisan support.
After all, even when presidents can influence the economy, they must rely on the support of Congress. Obama, unlike Reagan, received next to no bipartisan support for his efforts and thus those efforts have been constrained. Nevertheless, the nation's economic performance during his first term so far has compared favorably with that of Reagan's first term.
How to explain, then, why many Republicans would still like to see Reagan's face carved into Mt. Rushmore while simultaneously convinced Obama isn't even a real American, much less a patriot or relatively effective administrator. In short: It's not about the well-being of the nationk, it's nothing other than hypocrisy and naked, power-seeking partisanship.
Well, what's sauce for the goose. To those Obama naysayers in the GOP we can only say: Stay the course! Indeed, stay that course even when the guy delivering Reaganesque results and better isn't one of your own. Would that be too much to expect? Evidently so.