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Obama, the economy and some lessons from history

Nineteen years ago, in the run up to election ’92, the Democratic Party, or so it seemed at the time, offered a weak field of candidates in the primaries. The stronger candidates were a former senator from Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, and the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. For many, as one Democratic pollster put it, “it was a throw away election.” No one, or so went the popular wisdom, could beat George Bush. After the U.S. victory in Desert Storm in 1991 his approval rating had soared into the 80 percent range. However, as we all know, George Bush lost that election and the reason why can be offered in a few words on a placard in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

In 1992, going into the general election, while we were technically coming out of a recession, things were still slow, houses weren’t selling, and, most of all, 7.4 percent of the workforce was unemployed. In retrospect, compared to today’s economy, that doesn’t seem so bad, but it was enough to cost a sitting president his job.


The economy, more so than any other factor, has historically helped make or break a presidential campaign. Other factors, foreign policy, integrity issues and even likability matter, but historically, it’s been jobs and growth. That’s why going into election 2012, it’s surprising that the Republicans, who can read history as well as anyone, are offering such a weak field. Many in the Republican establishment, or so it seems, are convinced Barack Obama may be unbeatable. However, while a formidable opponent in any contest, Obama, just like Bush in 1992, has his problem with the economy.

And in case the politicos need a little persuading the history is pretty clear. No president since FDR has won an election with an unemployment rate higher than 7 percent. Now, there is one exception. Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 with a 7.2 percent unemployment rate. However, it was dropping fast and the Gross Domestic Product was surging. Also inflation was down sharply, and interest rates, which had been staggeringly high, were also falling.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter, lost reelection, mostly, thanks to 7.8 percent unemployment rate, inflation and high interest rates. Four years earlier, Gerald Ford, while suffering from the fallout of Watergate, also had to deal with a public that was unhappy with a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, and a thing called “stagflation.” That was minimal economic growth and high inflation. He came close, 1976 was a tight election, and while there were other factors bearing on the public’s decision, it’s reasonable to say, that had the economy been better, Ford would have been elected.

The economy while sometimes a drag on a sitting president, can also be a help. Clinton had his share of troubles in 1996, but with the economy growing, unemployment at a modest 5.4 percent and oh yes, a shrinking deficit, he easily won reelection. Bob Dole was a feisty opponent, but with most of the public experiencing good times, they weren’t anxious to replace the incumbent.

In 2004, George Bush, the younger, had an extremely difficult election. The shine had worn off his presidency and his opponent in that race, John Kerry, fully expected to win. Again, however, while that election focused more on domestic and international security than most, it didn’t hurt that the GDP had recovered from the post 9/11 downturn and that unemployment was only 5.4 percent. 

In the 2008 election, our current president, while battling for the White House against a non-incumbent successfully managed to put the blame for the on-going economic crisis at the feet of both George Bush and the Republican nominee John McCain. The banking crisis, growing unemployment, and a declining GDP were by far the most powerful issues in helping Barack Obama become president.

However, in 2012, President Obama is the incumbent and like some of his unlucky predecessors he too has his own economic millstone. The economy just isn’t getting better. Last month unemployment touched an unnerving 9.2 percent. The Gross Domestic Product, while increasing, is only doing so, very slowly. On top of that, what signs of a recovery there may be, are threatened by a crisis over the debt ceiling. This is something no other president has had to deal with before. Oh sure, sometimes government spending, and the debt were an issue, but it rarely had much effect on public opinion. But then again we have never faced cumulative or annual deficit this large. What’s more, the ongoing clash with Congress over raising the debt ceiling and the possibility of a public default on the debt could, arguably, make things much worse.

There is time to recover. But not much and if the economy hasn’t begun to improve markedly by January of next year, President Obama may be bucking up against history and this time it won’t be on his side.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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