There is a widely told story of Nikita Khrushchev’s ousting as the first secretary of the Communist Party more than 40 years ago. As the tale goes, just before leaving office the short-tempered, shoe-pounding leader sat down and wrote two letters to his successor along with a short note of instructions.
The note supposedly said, “To my successor: When you find yourself in a hopeless situation, open the first letter and it will save you. Later, when you again find yourself in a hopeless situation, open the second letter.”
Sure enough, his replacement, Leonard Brezhnev, soon had reason to open the first letter. It said, “Blame it all on me.” That’s what the new party leader did, and it saved his job. Later, he found himself in a similarly dire situation and supposedly grasped for Khrushchev’s second letter as he desperately looked for a solution.
He ripped open the letter and read Khrushchev’s final words of advice: “Sit down and write two letters.” It’s a story, let’s hope, President-elect Barack Obama has heard. The moral of the story is, of course, honeymoons don’t last forever and Obama’s will be over when he “owns” the economy, for better or worse.
As he is about to take office, however, most of America is willing to give him the honeymoon every president gets; but for much of Washington’s political and media insiders, the clock has already started running.
A presidential honeymoon is usually unpredictable, much like the real thing. Its length depends on the personalities involved and promises made during the campaign, the tenor of the times, and the political environment in which the new president must lead. For John F. Kennedy, the glamour of his candidacy and the drama of the Cuban missile crisis overcame the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and he enjoyed a honeymoon that continues to this day.
For Bill Clinton, the honeymoon was short-lived. By the end of May 1993, a series of political missteps had dragged his numbers down to 36 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval.
For Obama, however, Ronald Reagan’s early months and years in office may provide not only be a better analogy to current times but a cautionary tale about when a national recession becomes a president’s personal millstone. Reagan assumed the presidency with America in a severe economic crisis, dispirited by the long Iran hostage situation and threatened by a belligerent Soviet Union.
In the economic debate of the past few months, we have forgotten the grim economic legacy Reagan inherited. The inflation rate was nearly 12 percent. Today, it’s less than 2 percent. Interest rates were running at double digits with home mortgages as high as 15 percent. Today, a traditional 30-year mortgage averages around 5.5 percent.
The unemployment rate in January 1981 was at 7.5 percent, even higher than today’s 7.2 percent, and people were reeling not only from high gas prices but long lines as well. This isn’t to say that Obama isn’t inheriting a very difficult economic situation, but Reagan faced an equally daunting economic challenge.
On Jan. 20, 1981, however, people didn’t view it as Reagan’s recession. It was Jimmy Carter’s, and the American people understood that. Reagan took over the presidential reins with a job approval of 51 percent and 13 percent disapproval.
Obama will begin his presidency with high favorable ratings as well. A mid- December USA Today/Gallup poll found 75 percent of the American people approved of his handling of the transition. Rasmussen Reports put his job approval at 67/30 in its daily tracking on Monday.
He will also benefit from the fact that today, Americans blame the struggling economy on George W. Bush, but if the early years of Reagan’s presidency offer any insight on honeymoons, it is that voters are an impatient lot. For Reagan, his honeymoon faded in less than a year.
By December 1981, he had slipped to 49 approval/41 disapproval. What had been Carter’s recession just a year before was now becoming Reagan’s political albatross as his favorable ratings began a steady slide that continued throughout the year. Reagan now “owned” the economy and his political fortunes were tied to it.
When unemployment hit 10 percent in October 1982, his job approval dipped to 42/48. A month later, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House and a raft of governorships and state legislatures.
Time magazine’s post-election issue characterized voters’ mind-set this way: “The message read: reduce unemployment, bring down the deficit. The President was being told what practically all U.S. Presidents are told two years after their chiefdom is hailed: no mandate is forever. In presidential elections one votes for the sky. In off-year elections one looks at the street.”
Obama will face the same kind of assessment two years from now, but unlike Reagan, who had to work with a Democratically controlled House, voters understand that Democrats now control Washington. Obama’s policy prescription for what ails the economy appears to be roughly the same New Deal government spending approach offered by Franklin Roosevelt in his first term and by Democrats in Reagan’s.
Republicans would be wise to work with the new president by offering alternative plans and programs that will provide evidence of the stark differences that exist between the two parties’ economic policies. It’s important to remember that in 1938, years after billions of dollars had been invested in government “work” programs, the unemployment rate was more than 19 percent.
In the end, Obama and his party’s success or failure in the 2010 Congressional elections will depend on two factors: when the American people decide that this has become President Obama’s economy, and how the economy is doing at that moment. Obama can blame Bush; but as Brezhnev discovered, he can’t blame his predecessor forever.