Is it 1979 All Over Again?

The current political climate has similarities to the final days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.


Reading about the dismal economy, the political weakness of the president, and the antics of the Republican presidential contenders, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 1979.

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I’m not making any political predictions. Forecasting the political future is even harder than forecasting the economic future. It’s just that when you’ve reached a certain age, it seems as though you’ve seen it all before. Just consider these political similarities to 1979:

In 1979, the approval rating for President Jimmy Carter limped along at 45 percent —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, is 44 percent, which is even weaker than Carter’s and the lowest rating in a president’s first term since Truman in the late 1940s. (Lower results were polled for Presidents Nixon and Bush, but only during their second terms.)

In 1979, the Dow Jones industrial average was mired in the late 1970s economic doldrums. After ten years of sub-par performance, the stock market could still only manage a paltry 4 percent increase for the year.

In 2011, the Dow is mired in continuing economic doldrums. Even after a decade of underperformance, the Dow today is higher by barely 2 percent for the year and the S&P is actually down a bit for the year.

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Due to economic uncertainty in 1979, the price of gold shot up from $220 per ounce to $500 per 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.

The economic uncertainty of 2011 caused gold prices to increase from about $1,300 an ounce at the beginning of the year to $1,740 on December 1. The price has since sagged to $1,600, but is still up over 20 percent 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 bubbles 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, the Sony Walkman was released. In 2011, the Apple iPhone 4s came out.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected the first female prime minister of the U.K. In 2011, Angela Merkel, the first female German chancellor, rules supreme in Europe.

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.

In 1979, a gaggle of 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.

In 2011, numerous Republican challengers are hoping to unseat another Democratic president, including former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Reps. Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, and Ron Paul.

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Just a few notable differences: At the end of 1979 the inflation rate in the U. S. had ballooned to 13 percent, and interest rates hovered at 15 percent. Today the inflation rate is just 3 percent. Interest rates are closer to 2 percent.

And in 1979, the unemployment rate was considered high at 6 percent. Today, people are actually cheering an unemployment rate that has dipped below 9 percent.

Still, if I was Yogi Berra, I’d be saying, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.