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Analysis: Obama's jobs problem a historic challenge

June 01, 2012|By Paul West
  • US President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during a signing ceremony for the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
US President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during a signing ceremony… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON – The latest monthly jobs report, showing unemployment rising to 8.2%, essentially cinches it: President Obama will be confronting the bleakest economic picture on election day of any sitting president since World War II.

Three incumbents were defeated for reelection over that period. Each faced the voters when unemployment exceeded 7%.  But none had to cope with a jobless rate as high as Obama almost certainly will in November.

1976: 7.7% unemployed. President Ford loses to former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. 

1980: 7.5% unemployed. President Carter loses to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

1984: 7.4% unemployed. President Reagan wins reelection.

1992: 7.3% unemployed. President George H. W. Bush loses to former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

2012: 7.8-8.0% unemployed (from latest Federal Reserve forecast, issued before the U.S. economy began showing fresh signs of weakness).

Reagan, the lone exception to the postwar link between high unemployment and one-term presidencies, benefited from factors beyond a single monthly jobs report: the pace and direction of economic change. In the year leading up to his reelection, unemployment was high but falling – by 1.4 percentage points over the 12 months leading up to the election.

By contrast, in 1980 (Carter) and 1992 (the elder Bush), unemployment worsened in the year before the election, and the incumbents lost.

In 1976, the jobs picture was improving — by just seven-tenths of a percentage point – not fast enough to save Ford (a desire for change in Washington, in the first presidential election since the Watergate scandal, was also a major factor, as was Ford’s pardon of disgraced former President Nixon).

Where does that leave Obama? The year-to-year shift in the jobless rate won’t be known until the November report.  At best, improvement has been slow — somewhere between the pace under Ford and under Reagan. That may be enough for Obama to buck history – if the economy doesn’t slip backward toward recession, if Europe’s debt crisis doesn’t leap the Atlantic, and if voters don’t turn more pessimistic about the economic outlook.

For now, Obama is staring at the worst jobs numbers of a president seeking reelection in more than 70 years.  As he told supporters recently, gaining another term will be even tougher than winning the presidency in the first place.

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