One of the best ways to survive the grotesque and empty power pageantry of Washington's annual State of the Union extravaganza is by visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara's online archive of past addresses and looking up the speeches that corresponded to where the current POTUS sits in his term. Barack Obama took the podium during a midterm election year in his second term, corresponding to the addresses of George W. Bush in 2006, Bill Clinton in 1998 all the way back to George Washington in 1794.
Some of these documents read like tales from another planet. "With the deepest regret," the father of our country said in his last midterm year, "do I announce to you that during your recess some of the citizens of the United States have been found capable of insurrection." Others contain contemporary-sounding, calorie-free promises about "creating a commission to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid" (Bush '06), taking "all the necessary measures to strengthen the Social Security system for the 21st century" (Clinton '98), or achieving energy independence within six years (Nixon '74).
But every once in a while you stumble upon a commander in chief in a strikingly similar situation singing a startlingly different tune. Such is the difference between President Obama in 2014 and Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Both men took office in the teeth of bad recessions precipitated by reviled predecessors whose economic policies they successfully campaigned against. Unemployment had bounced from 6.3 percent to 7.5 percent in the 12 months before Reagan swore his oath, and jumped from 5 percent to 7.8 percent in the year before Obama took his. "These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions," Reagan said in his inaugural address. "Our economy is badly weakened," Obama said in his.
Unlike other presidents of the past half-century, Reagan and Obama were attractive, charismatic figures upon whom Americans could project their hopes and aspirations. Both vaulted to national political prominence through celebrated acts of oratory—Reagan at the 1964 Republican National Convention, Obama at the Democratic confab in 2004. It's no wonder that as the Illinois senator began smelling the prize of the White House, he was taking as inspiration not the most recent two-term Democratic president, but the politically transformational Republican that a generation of Democrats had learned to loathe.
"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism."
As president, Obama has consumed Reagan biographies as vacation reading material. He penned an appreciation of the Gipper for USA Today in 2011. ("At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything," Obama wrote.) His aides were tasked with studying how the 40th president realigned American politics. "Our hope," former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told Time in 2011, "is the story ends the same way."
So did it? Partisans certainly hoped so in the run-up to the 2012 election. Eyeing the headline unemployment rate a month before election day, Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza insisted that "the trend line does suggest that just as Reagan was able to argue that his policies had begun to work to improve the economy in 1984 so too can Obama in 2012."
But by 2014 State of the Union time, such comparisons felt obscene. The percentage of working-age adults who had full-time jobs at the time of Obama's latest address was 62.8; the last time that figure was lower was in the dark old days of February 1978. About the only macroeconomic statistic the president was able to brag about in the speech-"the lowest unemployment rate in over five years"-was the result of millions of Americans simply giving up looking for work.
While Obama's labor force participation rate went down almost three full percentage points during his first 59 months in the White House (from 65.7 percent to 62.8), Reagan's climbed from 63.9 to 65 percent over that same time span, on the way to a 66.5 rate by the time he left office. And it wasn't just the employment picture that was improving in the 1980s: The "Great Inflation" had been knocked down from 12 percent to 4 percent, interest rates had followed suit, and there was an unmistakable sense of economic vigor in the air.
Here's how Reagan described it in his 1986 State of the Union address: "I am pleased to report the state of our Union is stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day. Tonight we look out on a rising America, firm of heart, united in spirit, powerful in pride and patriotism. America is on the move! The United States is the economic miracle, the model to which the world once again turns."
Even granting a discount for Reagan's famously sunny-side-up persona, it is nearly impossible to imagine Barack Obama uttering such words today. That's because his economic policies have failed.
Obama looked upon the financial crisis of 2008 and saw the fingerprints of deregulation and stingy government "investments," even though George W. Bush was the biggest regulator since Richard Nixon and the biggest spender since LBJ. The president permanently jacked up federal spending through an $833 billion stimulus that, instead of being injected and then withdrawn, merely established a new baseline for annual federal expenditure at around $3.6 trillion. This maneuver has helped increase the national debt by a staggering and dangerous $6.7 trillion during Obama's tenure to date.
The president raised taxes in the January 2013 fiscal cliff deal, and is trying impotently to raise them more. He "punished" banks by preventing them from going bankrupt, forcing them to take government money, having the Federal Reserve pay them interest on their reserves, and writing regulations that benefit the big incumbents at the expense of upstarts. And he foisted upon the country an unpopular, unwieldy, and possibly unworkable health care law that is further dampening an already lousy economic record.
In early February, the Congressional Budget Office made its first long-term economic outlook since the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Conclusion? An already shrunken labor force will contract by 2.5 million more full-time jobs over the next 10 years, in part because Obamacare's complicated subsidy regime "is an implicit tax on working." Oh, and the debt-to-GDP ratio will continue to rise from its already "very high" position, which "could have serious negative consequences, including restraining economic growth in the long term, giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and eventually increasing the risk of a fiscal crisis."
No wonder Obama, in his State of the Union address, spoke not about any economic "miracle" already in progress but about turning the corner any day now. "I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America," the president said, lamely. "After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."
And so there we are. Fifteen years into the current century, we're almost ready to join it. Unless something truly surprising happens during his last two years in office, the only economic "transformation" Obama will preside over is the long-term diminishment of our national expectations.