What the GDP numbers tell us about the election
Today's GDP numbers are a good way to understand Tuesday's election. Start with who Barack Obama isn't: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You hear people say that if Obama could only sell his vision, his agenda or his commitments the way FDR could, he'd be safe right now. And the comparison is understandable: Like FDR, Obama took office shortly after a financial crisis. But unlike FDR, who took office after three years in which GDP shrank by an average of 9.6 percent each year, Obama -- and his predecessor -- responded effectively enough and quickly enough to stop the economy from collapsing. Our worst year was 2009, when GDP shrank by 2.6 percent. And that was the only year in which we actually lost ground.
FDR, for his part, took office after the worst of the Great Depression was over, and -- in part because of his efforts -- when the real recovery was beginning. In 1934, the year of his first midterm election, GDP grew by more than 10 percentage points. Obama took office in 2009, which was our worst year. And this year, the year of his first midterm, we're on track to grow by 2.5 percent. That is to say, it isn't a vision thing. If Obama could get FDR's numbers, and if he could've dodged the worst years of the crisis, he could go mute and still win the election.
Obama is also not Bill Clinton. Clinton lost 54 seats in 1994, but the economy wasn't doing particularly badly. It was the third straight year of growth, and when all was said and done, we'd expanded by 4.1 percent. Democrats hold almost exactly as many House seats in 2010 as they did in 2004, and if Nate Silver is right and they lose 53 of them, they will, given the economy, have outperformed Clinton's Democrats quite substantially. Maybe passing health-care reform actually helped?
The best comparison, it turns out, is between Obama and Ronald Reagan. The 1982 midterm election also came amid a weak economy. We'd shrunk by 1.9 percent, although we'd grown -- slowly -- the year before. The two presidents were also posting similar approval numbers: According to Gallup, Reagan had 43 percent at this point in his presidency, and Obama has 44 percent.
There is, however, a difference: Reagan's party was in the minority in the House. They had 192 seats and lost 26 of them. That's a 15.6 percent loss. If Democrats lost the same percentage of their 256 seats, they'd lose 40 seats this year. But because having a large majority means, by definition, holding many more vulnerable seats, the likelihood is that Republicans would have lost much more than 15.6 percent of their seats if they'd had another 54 seats to defend, and if unified government had left all the blame on their shoulders.
So Obama can't show the progress that either Bill Clinton or FDR could in the months before their first midterm elections. He's got more growth than Ronald Reagan did, but also more seats and unified control of government. He's got, in other words, a pretty bad situation. Reagan did too (though the cause of his recession was the Federal Reserve, and so recovery was easier to attain after the election), but Clinton really didn't. It's his losses that really stand out.
Graph credit: Gallup.
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