Steve Chapman

But four years of economic stagnation and turmoil have an odd way of wearing on the populace. Even if most people blame Bush more than Obama, the incumbent can't escape the general taint of failure. It's almost impossible to be a successful president -- or at least to be seen as one -- with an unsuccessful economy.

Ronald Reagan found that out. In 1982, amid a deep recession, the man now remembered as a transformative visionary was widely denounced as clueless and rigid, with even some Republicans concurring.

Reagan was reduced to insisting he was not a Scrooge, blaming naysayers for hindering the recovery and griping about press coverage: "Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?" In 1983, his approval rating fell to 35 percent, worse than Obama's recent low of 40 percent.

Yet Reagan eventually rebounded -- mainly because the economy came back. Had it kept sputtering long enough to prevent his re-election, he wouldn't be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. He'd be remembered as the second coming of Herbert Hoover.

The point is not that Obama's policies are or are not responsible for our current economic plight. The point is that perceptions of his character are powerfully shaped by external conditions that may have nothing to do with his behavior or his particular attributes.

Today, Obama may look weak or out of his depth. In a booming economy, doing absolutely nothing different, he would appear more than equal to his challenges. What is today described as weakness would look like strength.

The lesson for the president and commentators is simple. If the economy gains some real steam by next November, Obama's personal qualities won't matter much. And if it doesn't? Ditto.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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