Reading about the dismal economy, the political weakness of the president, and the ridiculous antics of the Republican presidential contenders, I can’t help but think that I've seen it all before. In 1979, to be exact.
Not to make any political predictions -- it’s just that when you’ve reached a certain age, it seems as though you’ve seen it all before. Just consider:
In 1979, the approval rating for President Jimmy Carter limped along at 45% -- the lowest rating in a president’s first term since President Harry Truman in the late 1940s.
In 2011, President Barack Obama’s approval rating, according to the latest Gallup poll, sits at 44% -- even weaker than Carter’s and, yes, the lowest rating for a president’s first term since Harry Truman in the late 1940s. (To be completely accurate, lower results were polled by Presidents Nixon and Bush, but only during their second terms.)
In 2011, the Dow is mired in continuing economic doldrums. Even after a decade of underperformance, the Dow today is higher by just 4% for the year.
Because of economic uncertainty in 1979, the price of gold shot up from $220 per ounce to $500 an ounce, the equivalent of about $1,300 today. (It was on its way to an early 1980 peak of just over $800 an ounce, the equivalent of about $2,100 in today’s dollars.)
Because of economic uncertainty in 2011, gold increased from about $1,300 an ounce at the beginning of the year to $1,740 on December 1. The price has since sagged to $1600, but is still up over 20% for the year.
In 1979, the price of oil reached a then-record price of $25 per barrel – today’s equivalent of about $70.
In 2011, the price of oil bubbled back above $100 a barrel, for the first time since 2008.
In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania. In 2011 nuclear disaster was revisited in Fukushima, Japan.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected the first female prime minister of the U.K. Now in 2011 Angela Merkel, the first female German chancellor, rules supreme in Europe. And at the end of 2011 Meryl Streep stars in The Iron Lady, a bio pic about none other than ... Margaret Thatcher.
In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, seized power from the autocratic Shah and declared an Islamic republic. Americans were taken hostage at the embassy in Tehran.
In 2011 revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere throw out long-standing Muslim autocrats. The latest election in Egypt pushes Islamists to the forefront of political power. Americans are leaving Iraq after ten years of "peacekeeping."
In 1979 a gaggle of seemingly ridiculous Republican challengers were vying to unseat an unpopular Democratic president – including ultraconservative former governor Ronald Reagan, former CIA director George Bush, Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. Robert Dole, Reps. John Anderson and Phil Crane, and former Texas Governor John Connelly.
Remember how the Republican candidates competed with one another in a series of state caucuses that came to be known derisively as "cattle calls?" After George Bush won in Iowa he pronounced that he had the "Big Mo," until Reagan sponsored a debate in New Hampshire when he somehow stole headlines after the director tried to mute the frontrunner's microphone and Reagan snapped back, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green."
Now, in 2011, a gaggle of seemingly ridiculous Republican challengers are vying to unseat an unpopular Democratic president – including former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Reps. Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul.
We don't yet have our age-defining sound bite. But no doubt it will come. And I wonder who among the Republican contenders will be left standing after Iowa? The pundits say three: Romney and two others. Any idea who they might be?
Just a few notable differences: At the end of 1979 the inflation rate in the U. S. had ballooned to 13%, and interest rates floated along at 15%. Today the inflation rate is just 3%. Interest rates are closer to 2%.
And in 1979 the unemployment rate was considered high at 6%. Today, people are actually cheering that the unemployment rate has dipped below 9%.
Still, if I was French, I’d be saying, "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."
Meanwhile, a propos of nothing, here's the Smashing Pumpkins hit song 1979, released in 1996, that starts out, "Shakedown 1979, cool kids never have the time ..."