Two years ago I thought we were headed for a serious depression and almost everyone else seemed to think so too. Not Great Depression levels, maybe, but a worldwide crisis, with U.S. unemployment remaining in double digits for years, perhaps pushing 20%. But two years later, the people who’ve been trying to hold the roof up seem to have done it. It’s leaking, and props like stimulus spending are causing their own, predicted problems (a high deficit, but since when have Republicans cared about those? Oh, right, since the Democrats took power). But still, it’s over our heads instead of down around our ears.

So you would think that “We kept things from being really, really bad and held them to just pretty bad” would be a strong campaign slogan (okay, after some editing), but instead, it seems to be conventional wisdom that that argument will get the Dems nowhere. Certainly, Obama has stopped campaigning on what they’ve done over the past two years and is instead trying to focus on the future. Judging from the polls, the party that saved our butts is about to take a licking, as angry voters try to return Congress to the people who created this mess to begin with.

I’m wondering how things were different in 1934. FDR had taken office with a landslide win in the 1932 election, 57.4% of the popular vote; like Obama, he also saw his party take control of both houses of Congress that year (moving from a slight to a commanding majority in the House, and winning the majority in the Senate). So the Democrats went into the 1934 midterm elections in a comparable situation to today’s party, having been able to pass legislation to address the economic crisis over Republican opposition. The Depression was far from over. Unemployment was at 21.7% that year (the Bureau of Labor Statistics can no doubt provide a month-by-month account if you’re curious).

So what happened in those midterms? The Republicans lost big.  And then, in 1936, with unemployment and other effects of the Depression still ravaging the country (the world), FDR won re-election in a landslide.

So what gives?

There are differences between 1934 and 2010, of course. The Depression was well underway when FDR ran in 1932; Hoover and a Republican Senate had had three years to turn it around, but between the 1929 crash and the election, things had only gotten worse. In contrast, Obama came into office at a time when, while almost everyone was predicting economic disaster, the tidal wave had not yet struck. It’s much less psychologically convincing to point out a disaster averted than to turn around a bad situation.

But geez, FDR and his Democratic Congress had barely turned around a bad situation, themselves. They’d created a barrelful of new programs meant to end the depression, and yet the unemployment rate had dropped an undramatic 1.9 points. Why didn’t the voters say “You’ve had two years and things are still a mess!”?

Got a theory? Know some history to fill things in for us? Recommend any books on the political history of the ’30s?


ETA on 10/28: Hendrik Hertzberg just took up the same question in this week’s The New Yorker.