Mourning in America

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.