AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
With unemployment at 9.1 percent and the economy as the top issue of the 2012 presidential race, President Obama faces a tough fight for reelection. Still, he might find some encouragement in the history books. Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian. Back in June, he spoke to members of the Obama reelection team as they were preparing for the 2012 race.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I was asked, as I have by presidential staffs of both parties, to go out and talk to a group of White House staff members who were having a retreat at Fort McNair and basically give the kind of history lecture I give almost anywhere else. During the course of it, someone asked - said, people are saying there's an iron law of politics that no president gets reelected with the unemployment rate above a certain number. And I said there are no iron laws of politics, and in fact this one has at least two exceptions.
CORNISH: Michael Beschloss wants to set the record straight: he was not advising the Obama team but speaking about campaign history.
BESCHLOSS: Unemployment is not necessarily a deal breaker for a president: 1936 - Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection with an unemployment rate of about 16 percent. He was able to make the case that he was pulling the country out of the Great Depression and also that his opponent, Alf Landon, if elected, would return the country to the policies that had caused the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan did sort of the same thing in 1984 with an unemployment rate that was also high, saying that Walter Mondale, who was Jimmy Carter's vice president, would bring back the policies that had caused the recession of 1980. But just as there are no iron laws in politics, not every precedent always holds.
CORNISH: And, of course, with this particular president, Barack Obama, his most recent, say, Gallup poll ratings show that his approval ratings are around 39 percent. I mean, it's pretty low. And I have to admit that that might...
BESCHLOSS: It's pretty...yeah, George Bush...George H.W. Bush, when he ran for reelection, his approval rating was about 37 percent. And he lost that election.
CORNISH: So, what is the political lesson to be learned from this history then? I mean, you talked about FDR and Reagan. What were the strategies that they did use?
BESCHLOSS: Well, I think the beginning thing is to say that no one would ever want to run for reelection with an unemployment that's getting close to 10 percent as it is right now, or a poverty rate that's as high as it is right now or some of the other things that are distressing about this economy. But when you're looking at the elections of the past, you also have to take into account, these people were running against opponents. FDR was running against Alf Landon, who, in many ways, said I'm going to bring back the policies of Herbert Hoover. Had he run against a more progressive Republican who said I accept the New Deal, Social Security and all that, but I'll administer it better and more cheaply, that person might have given FDR a real run. Same thing with Ronald Reagan in 1984. If there had been an opponent who was not so closely tied to Jimmy Carter, who had become so unpopular, that would have been a closer race too. So, anyone who's saying that President Obama is finished because of these bad unemployment and poverty numbers - sure doesn't help; he's going to have a very tough time - but tell me who the opponent is going to be.
CORNISH: Well, let's look at the field. Are there any particular opponents you see on the Republican side who would, based on these sort of historical precedents, really pose a threat?
BESCHLOSS: As a registered Independent, I can tell you I'm doing this only academically. I think the amazing thing is that this far out it is almost impossible to say. If we were talking at this point in the 1980 cycle, which would have been the fall of 1979, many quite intelligent people would have said, you know, best opponent for Jimmy Carter is Ronald Reagan - he's too far right, he's too old, too rooted in the movie industry, you know, less of a commanding leader. Many of the people on the Carter White House staff were praying for Ronald Reagan. It was hard to anticipate that a year later Ronald Reagan might ultimately have turned out to be Carter's strongest competition.
CORNISH: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss speaking with us in our Washington studios. Michael, thank you so much.
BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.