By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has scant time left to build the muscular economic recovery that won Ronald Reagan his re-election in 1984 after he seemed similarly at risk of being a one-term president at the half way point in his administration.
As he prepares to deliver a vital speech on Thursday to boost job growth and lift his standing with voters, Obama's approval rating is the lowest since Jimmy Carter's and not far behind Reagan's at similar stages in their presidencies.
Obama will urge Congress to back tax cuts and spending designed to lower the unemployment rate which is stuck above 9.0 percent, but he must persuade Republican lawmakers who have voiced skepticism that his policies will work.
Presidents have been able to win re-election during times of economic hardship. Reagan overcame a midterm slump in popularity and convincingly won a second term. Voters also kept faith with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the dark days of the 1930's Great Depression.
But there are some big differences between the conditions Reagan faced and those now confronting Obama that make his task of getting reelected even harder.
"It is a different situation. There was still a lot of room (in 1983) for instruments of policy to effect the growth direction of the economy," said Richard Parker, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Aggressive action by Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker to curb U.S. inflation set the stage for surging economic growth that coincided perfectly with Reagan's 1984 run for reelection, as unemployment fell steadily from 9.5 percent to 7.2 percent.
No president since then has won reelection with unemployment above that level.
Now, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has already lowered benchmark interest rates almost to zero and Obama is likely to battle for more government spending from Congress where Republicans control the House of Representatives.
He is also trying to lift an economy after a very different kind of recession, induced by a near-collapse of the financial system. This type of recession traditionally lasts longer and delivers a weaker recovery that creates fewer jobs than a recession in which the banking sector was not badly harmed.
NO REAGAN BOOM IN SIGHT
"This much slower pace of recovery makes it very difficult for this president to believe he will be able to report to the American people by this spring that the economy is back and booming," said Parker.
The weak economy, with unemployment stuck above 9.0 percent, has hammered Obama's his poll numbers and seen the number of Americans doubting his economic stewardship climb.
Obama's latest weekly Gallup approval rating is 42 percent, measured between August 29 and September 4, versus 43 percent for Reagan and 32 percent for Carter, using similar late August readings of their respective third years in the White House.
President Obama told CBS in an interview last month he expects to be judged by voters next year on whether "things have continued to get better".
That demands he develop a narrative that convinces voters the future will be brighter than the gloomy present, and the time for that is running out.
"Can Obama begin to create a story that things are going to be okay in the end," said Professor Graham Wilson at Boston University. "It is getting fairly desperate. The recovery in Reagan's ratings was already underway at this point and there is no sign of that for Obama."
Some use models to predict election results that rely on gauges of prosperity like economic growth and income rather than unemployment, and these give Obama fighting chance.
"Based on past history, real income growth of just 0.7 percent in 2012 would be enough to give President Obama a 50-50 chance of reelection," said Larry Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Real U.S. disposable income fell 0.1 percent in July.
However, one crucial factor weighing on Obama's re-election prospects will be hard to pin down for some time: the identity of the Republican candidate who will challenge him in November 2012, which the party will not decide until next year.
"Often times, presidents can get re-elected running on fear of their opponents rather than love of themselves," said Parker, citing Lyndon Johnson's 1964 victory over Republican Barry Goldwater. "This is not a question of it being decided by Obama's performance alone."