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.