Reagan, Bush, and the 2004 Election

The death of former President Ronald Reagan gave Americans a temporary respite from a highly charged and competitive presidential election campaign. Both President George Bush and Senator John Kerry quickly suspended their most overt political activities during the week of mourning, although the president’s schedule was already fully occupied by the D-Day commemoration in Normandy and the G-8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia. And nothing on the campaign trail could possibly top Bush’s opportunity to connect with an attentive and sympathetic national audience when he eulogized Reagan in a service at the National Cathedral.

Reagan was an immensely consequential and controversial president who managed to recover in time from a deep recession in his first term to win a landslide reelection based on the theme of “It’s morning again in America.” He then survived the debilitating Iran-Contra scandal in his sixth year and left office as a popular president. Bush has long seen himself as following in the footsteps not of his father—President George H.W. Bush—but of Reagan. President George W. Bush was naturally attracted to Reagan’s model of strong and decisive leadership, which featured a crystal-clear agenda of bold tax cuts and a muscular national defense, an unquestioned commitment to the GOP’s conservative political base combined with a rhetoric of reasonableness and optimism, and a management style of big-picture focus and extensive delegation to trusted subordinates.

Is Bush similarly positioned to overcome his first-term setbacks, win reelection, and put his distinctive and enduring mark on American politics and policy? In short, no.
The differences between Reagan and Bush five months before their fateful reelection days overwhelm the similarities.

Reagan took office at a time of public discontent—over the performance of the economy, the state of democracy at home, and the place of America in the world—and with a clear electoral mandate for change.
Bush entered the White House following the longest economic expansion in U.S. history—one whose fruits were shared widely throughout society—and without a popular-vote victory, much less any semblance of public embrace of his agenda.

Reagan took a number of difficult actions early in his first term, most importantly supporting Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s determination to use high interest rates to wring inflation out of the economy. The subsequent economic downturn sunk Reagan’s job ratings throughout his second year and much of his third year (reaching a low of 35 percent), but he was eventually rewarded with a steady upward trajectory in his ratings, moving past 50 percent at the start of 1984 and peaking at 58 percent just before election day.

Bush, by contrast, reached the apogee of his popularity in his first year in office, in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Since then, the trend has been relentlessly downward, interrupted only briefly by rallies associated with the military invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Over the last several months, no major poll has registered a job approval rating for him as high as 50 percent. Assessments of his performance managing the economy and handling the situation in Iraq have been substantially lower.

In June 1984, Ronald Reagan had a very positive story to tell the American people. The economy was in full recovery, America was standing tall in the world, and citizens sensed the country was clearly moving in the right direction after years of malaise.

Twenty years later the situation facing President Bush is very different. The economy is recovering but only after fits and starts, with meager wage gains, escalating health care costs, high gas prices, and fresh memories of a slack job market contributing to a subjective sense that the economy is not well. Most Americans believe they have not benefited from the Bush tax cuts and are singularly unimpressed with his major domestic policy achievements—education reform and Medicare drug benefits. The large federal budget deficits, which materialized so quickly after the Clinton surpluses, contribute to the gloom.

Chaos, casualties, and prisoner abuse in Iraq have led a majority of Americans to conclude that the costs of intervention now outweigh the benefits. The public sees reports of broad Iraqi resistance to the American occupation and wonders whether we will ever be able to achieve our objectives (whatever they might now be). And only the most partisan Republican denies the reality that America’s standing in the world, particularly on the streets of countries stretching from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, has suffered grievously since the international outpouring of sympathy after the 9/11 attacks.

These anxieties about our domestic well being and national security—especially when combined with the bitter partisan warfare that has characterized American politics during most of Bush’s tenure in the White House—have produced a strong sense that the country is seriously off track and in need of substantial political change. Barely over two-fifths of likely voters believe the president deserves reelection.

Unlike Reagan’s situation in 1984, the playing field is now clearly tilted in favor of the challenger. Whether President Bush can improve conditions on the ground (at home and abroad) and in the minds of voters sufficient to level that field is unknown. It is a tall order, one much more daunting than that faced at a comparable point by Ronald Reagan.