Can a President Be Reelected With 9 Percent Unemployment?
No American president has been reelected when unemployment has been higher than 7.2 percent in more than 50 years. It's a refrain that's been thrown around in the pages of The New York Times and in nearly every conversation when Barack Obama's chances for reelection are discussed, both inside the Beltway and beyond.
With Election Day more than 15 months away, Barack Obama has many reasons, including the capture of Osama bin Laden, 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 more than two years he has been in office, Obama has not presided over an unemployment figure below 8 percent, apart from during the month he took office. The most recent report 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 can't be stressed enough just 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 starting to close. Moreover, the most recent jobs report was received as a sign that a true economic turnaround is still some way off.
"This calls into question the possibility 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 many observers reject the logic.
"Sometimes you don't repeat history, you make it," says Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian based out of George Mason University, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "If there's no consensus that things could be better, then the exact number of the unemployment is almost irrelevant."
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 problem once he entered office. The question, though, is to what extent the voters will see Obama as to blame for the daunting economic environment.
And there is a relatively recent precedent of voters overwhelmingly forgiving a sitting president for bruising unemployment figures. Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 in no small thanks to a question that he posed to the American people during the preceding year's election -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
As he ran for reelection in 1984, Reagan didn't really want to fully confront the same question. On his watch, the country suffered through a recession in 1982, which was characterized by bank failings and high inflation. He even committed the ultimate 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'
"There's no magic number," says David Gergen, who served as a senior adviser to President Reagan, in addition to three other presidents, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "What matters is the pace of the change. We had a V-shaped recession, and we could say there was 'Morning in America' in 1984 because unemployment had come down from above 10 percent during 1982."
On Election Day, Reagan defeated Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale in all but one state and Washington D.C., capturing 59 percent of the popular vote, even though 7.2 percent of the country was unemployed. Indeed, it's that very figure from Reagan's reelection that serves as the standard in the current framing of the unemployment barometer for reelections. And some say the line is misleading.
"It's one of those phony statistics that's not predictive of anything," says Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "You can't go back in history and just pluck a number, because you can't test it. But what is interesting is that we've never had a situation quite like this. Right now the economy is working against him, but there are so many things working for him. So if things stay as they are, we'll see just how important the economy is on its own."
Lichtman has been correctly predicting presidential elections since 1984 through a system he devised called the "The Keys to the White House," which was also the name of a book he wrote in 1996. Among his 13 checks that seem to currently be favoring Obama include a lack of a serious challenger from either a third party or from within his own party.
One sitting president who also had to run for reelection amid a difficult economic climate was President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Like Obama and his capture of Osama bin Laden, Bush could boast of a major foreign policy accomplishment, having evicted Iraq from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But that year also saw a recession and 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.
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, he went on to lose against Bill Clinton in the general election.
And while Clinton's candidacy made famous the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," a downturn is not nearly as damaging for an incumbent as when it's accompanied by major social unrest, says Lichtman. And as another instructive case study, Lichtman offered up the experiences of both Herbert Hoover and his successor, Franklin Roosevelt
Earning a Country's Trust
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 ensuing poverty and population shifts helped catapult Franklin Roosevelt to power.
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 more than 60 percent of the popular vote. The formula for his victory, says Lichtman, was twofold: Regardless 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.
So transformational was Roosevelt's domestic agenda that it changed the very 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, during the Progressive Era 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."
The activist New Deal agenda pursued by Roosevelt stands in contrast to the path pursued by Obama, says formerof Labor, Robert Reich.
"He's been lured into the echo chamber of Washington insiders, where it's all about the current skirmish," Reich says in an interview with AOL Jobs. "Everyone is mesmerized by the immediate big fight, but the American people are paying very little 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, if they themselves aren't."
Reich, who served in the presidential cabinet of Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997, urges his fellow Democrat currently occupying the Oval Office to instead 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 convince 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. Reich also suggested pro-rating unemployment benefits to assist part-time workers, once they find themselves out of a job, among other initiatives. And 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."
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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