The clock ticks: History, unemployment, and presidential elections


Less than one year to the 2012 elections. Barely 50 days to the Iowa caucuses. Less than 60 days to the New Hampshire primary. The official presidential race is upon us. But as the clocks ticks, time is running out for Obama and history is against him.

The basic problem is the economy. Only 80,000 jobs were added in October, placing the unemployment rate at 9.0%. The Federal Reserve Board projects slow economic growth next year–2-2.5%–with the unemployment rate settling in at about 8.5% by election time. Of course these numbers are bad for all looking for jobs or businesses hoping to grow, yet for Obama it is a real problem.

Since 1932 only two presidents have ever won re-election when the unemployment rate was above 6%. In 1936 and 1940 Franklin Roosevelt won reelection with unemployment rates of 17% and 14.6%, but both of these elections should be treated as outliers or oddities. In 1936 the unemployment rate had dropped from nearly 24% to 17% and the economy was growing at an annual rate of 14%. In 1940 World War II was upon America and with patriotism high, support for Roosevelt was strong. More importantly, the economy was growing at 10% but the perception was that the president had the country going in the right direction.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan won re-election with an unemployment rate of 7.5%. Yet his victory occurred when the economy was growing at more than 11% and gas prices were tumbling from then record highs. Reagan definitely benefitted from the perception that it truly was morning in America, especially after the unemployment rate tumbled from around 10% in 1982 and 1983.

But FDR and Reagan aside, high unemployment–six percent or more–is the death knell for a presidential re-election bid. In 1976 Gerald Ford ran for re-election when the unemployment rate was 7.7%–he lost to Jimmy Carter. Four years later the unemployment rate was 7.1% when Carter ran for a second term against Reagan. He lost to the tune of Reagan asking Americans if they were better off now than they were four years ago. In 1992 George Bush sought a second term with an unemployment rate of 7.5%–he lost to a Bill Clinton reminding the voters that it was “the economy stupid.” Conversely, Nixon won with an unemployment rate of 5.6% in 1972, Clinton 5.4% in 1996, Bush in 2004 with 5.5%, Eisenhower 4.1% in 1956, and Truman in 1948 with 3.8%.

Key to a presidential re-election is the actual unemployment rate. But economic, and the reality or perception that it is moving in the right direction, is also important. If there are not significant declines in unemployment along with economic growth and a perception that the economy is moving in the right direction, presidents are not given a second term.

Obama faces an economy where the best projection is of high unemployment and low economic growth. But there is more. Home values remain about 25% or more below what they were in 2008, consumer and now student debt is high, and many people have already blown through their unemployment benefits and face an uncertain future. Consumer confidence remains near historic lows, suggesting little chance that retail sales and spending for the coming holidays and into next year will revive the economy. The public just does not believe the country is headed in the right direction and few think we are better off now than four years ago.

History suggests Obama will lose. This assumes the Republicans put up a viable candidate with a compelling narrative. Yet so far that task seems elusive. Bachmann has come and gone. Perry has gaffed himself to death. Cain’s numbers place him in the GOP lead, but his negatives are escalating as it becomes more apparent that he is a misogynist who treats every woman in a demeaning fashion. Romney is boring and the Republican base does not really know where “multiple choice Mitt” stands on the issues. Gingrich is too acerbic. Congressional approval is less than 10%, with the public placing more blame on the Republicans than Obama for the gridlock in Washington. In short, the Republicans have Democrats disease—they are poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Obama can still win—he has money, the bully pulpit, and demographics that place perhaps as many as 200 or more electoral votes in easily into his presidential win column without too much effort. Now all he needs is the narrative for his re-election.

Obama hopes for a rerun of the 1948 Truman surprise victory over Dewey, campaigning hard as an economist populist against a hapless elitist. Yet the 1948 campaign featured an economy far better than 2012 so the parallels here might not be good.

Obama is also running on the fear factor—Hope that the American public will be afraid of an extremist Republican president presiding over a Republican Congress. Fear came be a powerful too, but 1980 demonstrated with Carter was up for re-election, fear of a crazy Reagan who would blow up the world was pushed aside by the desire for change and disgust with the status quo. Obama knows the public wants change—as he promised in 2008—but it is hard to run on that narrative when you an incumbent seeking re-election. He needs to navigate a message that promises change while staying the course with him. It’s a hard task—made only more difficult by the unemployment numbers—but Reagan and FDR did it, and now Obama needs to figure out how to channel their magic to do the same.