No American president has been reelected when unemployment has been higher than 7.2 percent in over 50 years. It is a refrain that is been thrown around in the pages of The New York Timesand in every conversation when Barack Obama’s chances for reelection are discussed, both inside the Beltway & beyond.
With Election Day over 15 months away, Barack Obama has lots of reasons, including the capture of Osama bin Loaded, to be confident in his chances for winning a second term. But any early prognostication in Obama’s favor must be balanced by a consideration of the challenges he faces on the economic front. In the over years he’s been in office, Obama has not presided over an unemployment figure below 8 percent, apart from in the work of the month he took office. The latest document from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the month of June, even saw the rate raise by 0.1 percent from the month before, leaving the current national tally at 9.2 percent.
It cannot be stressed how much could change by November 2012. But in view of the demands of the modern campaign, the window for new challengers to jump in is beginning to close. Moreover, the latest jobs document was received as a sign that a true economic turnaround is still some way off.
“Sometimes you don’t repeat history, you make it,” says Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian based out of George Mason University. “If there is no consensus that things could be better, then the exact number of the unemployment is irrelevant.”
“This calls in to query the likelihood of a rebound later this year,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist of the Moody’s rating agency, in a widely cited interview on CNBC. Reacting to the uptick of 18,000 jobs in the private sector, the lowest rate since last September, Zandi noted, “This kind of jobs number changes the dynamic.” And if recent history is any guide, as embodied by the 7.2 percent statistic, such a scenario must spell political doom for the Obama reelection, the argument goes. But plenty of observers reject the logic.
Indeed, as the Obama communications team has constantly pointed out, the timing of the economic downturn has created, for the president, an unusual relationship with the crisis. The causes of the implosion undeniably took place before his tenure in the White House. When the dramatic crash did occur, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the fallout brightened Obama’s political star; his status as an outsider to the establishment only became more appealing.
But having benefited as a candidate from the crisis, it soon became his top issue one time he entered office. The query, though, is to what extent the voters will see Obama as to blame for the daunting economic surroundings.
And there is a comparatively recent precedent of voters overwhelmingly forgiving a sitting president for bruising unemployment figures. Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 in no tiny thanks to a query that he posed to the American people in the work of the earlier year’s election — “Are you better off than you were years ago?”
As he ran for reelection in 1984, Reagan didn’t need to fully confront the same query. On his watch, the country suffered through a recession in 1982, which was characterized by bank failings and high inflation. He even committed the final Republican crime by raising taxes. He also presided over a cumulatively stagnant unemployment rate, which only shrank 0.3 percentage points from the 1980 Election Day clip of 7.5 percent.
The Meaning of ‘Change’
On Election Day, Reagan defeated Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale in all but state & Washington D.C., capturing 59 percent of the popular vote, although 7.2 percent of the country was unemployed. Indeed, it is that figure from Reagan’s reelection that serves as the standard in the current framing of the unemployment barometer for reelections. & some say the line is misleading.
“There’s no magic number,” says David Gergen, who served as a senior adviser to President Reagan, in addition to other presidents, in an interview with AOL Jobs. “What matters is the pace of the alter. They had a V-shaped recession, & they could say there was ‘Morning in America’ in 1984 because unemployment had come down from above ten percent in the work of 1982.”
“It’s of those phony statistics that is not predictive of anything,” says Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, in an interview with AOL Jobs. “You cannot return in history & pluck a number, because you cannot check it. But what is fascinating is that we have seldom had a situation like this. Right now the economy is working against him, but there’s so lots of things working for him. So if things stay as they are, we’ll see how important the economy is by itself.”
Lichtman has been correctly predicting presidential elections since 1984 through a technique they devised called the “The Keys to the White House,” which was also the name of a book they wrote in 1996. Among his 13 checks that appear to currently be favoring Obama include a lack of a serious challenger from either a third party or from within his own party.
sitting president who also had to run for reelection amid a difficult economic climate was President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Like Obama & his capture of Osama bin Loaded, Bush could boast of a major foreign owner accomplishment, having evicted Iraq from Kuwait in the work of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But that year also saw a recession & the domestic unemployment rate to rise to around 7 percent. The issue of the deficit even motivated an outsider, Ross Perot, to make a third party bid.
& while Clinton’s candidacy made famous the slogan, “It’s the economy, dull,” a downturn is not as damaging for an incumbent as when it is accompanied by major social unrest, says Lichtman. & as another instructive case study, Lichtman offered up the experiences of both Herbert Hoover & his successor, Franklin Roosevelt
Bush also struggled to hold his base together, as an ascendant social conservative movement clashed with Bush’s moderate impulses. After the president survived an intra-party challenge from Pat Buchanan, they went on to lose against Bill Clinton in the general election.
Earning a Country’s Trust
For his part, Roosevelt didn’t succeed in bringing down the unemployment rate below 17 percent by the time he ran for reelection in 1936. But he was still able to win a second term by a convincing margin, capturing over 60 percent of the popular vote. The formula for his victory, says Lichtman, was twofold: Irrespective of how high it was, the unemployment rate was moving in the right direction, and Roosevelt had earned the country’s trust as the national Mr. Fix-It, largely thanks to his personal charisma.
When the Great Depression of 1929 caused an unemployment rate of around 24 percent at the time of the 1932 election, the sitting president, Hoover, was seen as embracing a “hands-off” approach. Soon, shantytowns took the name Hoovervilles, and the following poverty and population shifts helped catapult Franklin Roosevelt to power.
So transformational was Roosevelt’s domestic agenda that it changed the relationship that Americans had with their government, says Norton Smith, of George Mason.
“Outside of the Civil War, the primary contact Americans had with their government was through the postal office,” he says. “The advocacy and agenda-setting came about because of what both Roosevelts did, in the work of the Progressive Period and the New Deal. So now, Americans can ask, ‘What are you doing for me to help with jobs.’ That wasn’t always the case.”
“He’s been lured in to the echo chamber of Washington insiders, where it is all about the current skirmish,” Reich says in an interview with AOL Jobs. “Everyone is mesmerized by the immediate huge fight, but the American people are paying small attention to the budget battle and have no idea what it means to raise the debt limit. But most people know somebody who is unemployed, in the event that they themselves are not.”
The activist New Deal agenda pursued by Roosevelt stands in contrast to the path pursued by Obama, says former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.
Reich, who served in the presidential cabinet of Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997, urges his fellow Democrat currently occupying the Oval Office to in lieu move a bold jobs initiative to the forefront of his domestic and economic agendas. Encouraging a second New Deal of sorts, Reich says that the best way the president can persuade Americans he is actively seeking to improve their economic situation is by putting the long-term unemployed back to work on public works projects to help with the country’s hobbled infrastructure, and by pro-rating unemployment benefits to assist part-time workers, one time they find themselves out of a job, among other initiatives. While such policies might attract skepticism among Republicans, most would accept the premise that more must be done.
“If the president fails to address the economy and jobs,” Reich says, “he creates a vacuum and that vacuum will be filled with Republicans.”