By MARSHA MERCER
If we Americans “get our mojo back over the next several months,” President Obama said on “The View,” “then I’m absolutely confident that we are going to be doing terrific.”
It may have been the first time a sitting president had visited a daytime TV talk show, but Obama was hardly the first to try to brighten a gloomy midterm campaign season.
During the dark slog of the 1982 recession, Ronald Reagan shined his famous optimism coast to coast on behalf of Republican candidates. A couple of weeks before voters went to the polls, Reagan conceded that Americans weren’t out of the recession yet, but he insisted things were looking up. There was no need to listen to the doom-peddlers.
After all, Reagan said in a radio address Oct. 23, “Yesterday, a leading bank lowered its prime rate to 11½ percent, and others will soon follow.”
That’s right: Eleven and a half percent. There you have it. Progress is a matter of perspective and presentation.
We may be struggling through our own deep recession and soaring unemployment, but the prime rate today hovers mercifully around 3 ¼ percent.
Obama is probably right that we need our mojo back, but the country needs more than talk of joie de vivre. Americans need jobs and a sense of security and possibility.
Mojo and momentum, like favorable winds, have been at Republican backs this year. Republicans benefit from the historical trend that the president’s party almost always loses seats in off-year elections. Democrats warn sourly of serious erosion in the House and perhaps loss of control to Republicans.
It’s worth remembering that in 1982, Republicans were in the minority and lost 26 seats in the House, and it was considered a victory of sorts, considering the dreary economy. The Great Communicator’s popularity plummeted below 50 percent during his first two years in office and yet he roared back to re-election. Obama’s approval ratings have nearly tracked Reagan’s. Democrats hope that means he could bounce back too.
In the 1994 midterm elections, President Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 52 House seats, and he too won re-election two years later.
To be sure, it’s a stretch to liken 2010 to previous years. Circumstances are always different. The economy is just one difficulty facing the country. Lasting wars on two fronts have alienated the Democrats’ core constituency.
Obama contends he’s doing what’s right and not necessarily what’s popular -- but he has done a poor job of making the case for a larger role for government. Critics have hammered the Obama-is-a-failure line.
Polls show a majority now favors Republican control of Congress. Six in 10 voters say they don’t trust Obama to make the right decisions.
Reagan, in contrast, struck a chord with Americans with his easy formulation that government is the problem -- not the solution. Naturally, it’s more popular to give people a tax cut than to take one away.
Some Republicans even suggest that people are nostalgic for President George W. Bush and his policies.
“President Bush’s stock is going up a lot since he left office,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a C-SPAN interview recently. People appreciate Bush’s resolve and commitment to national security after Sept. 11, Cornyn said.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a TV interview that the country needs to “go back to the exact agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminishing it.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seized on the Sessions sound bite for an ad charging that Republicans want to take the country backwards.
Praising Bush may be a Republican strategy to defuse bombshells from Bush’s memoir, to be published in November. Excerpts from “Decision Point” could be an October surprise. Obama is still running against Bush, even though neither is on the ballot.
Four days before the ’82 election, Reagan wowed crowds of Republicans saying, “This morning America awoke to see another patch of blue…” By 1984, he was talking of “morning in America.”
We’ll see if Obama finds the right words to help Americans rediscover their mojo.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.