An awful lot is being made of the unemployment rate and how it may well fall on President Obama’s re-election hopes like one of those giant ACME anvils that always clobbered the coyote in the old cartoons. It is a fair concern.
People without jobs have a pronounced tendency to unleash their fury against people in power, and no matter how much you may campaign as an “outsider,” once you’ve spent four years in the Oval Office, you’re an insider by almost any measure. And when the economy goes bad, usually insiders get punished.
But I’ve spent some time comparing unemployment figures to re-election bids of the past (oh, yes, I’m a party animal!) and the relationship is not as paint-by-number as you may think.
A high unemployment rate is not necessarily as deadly to an incumbent as conventional wisdom dictates. Ronald Reagan, early in his presidency, presided over some shockingly big jobless digits, slightly worse than anything we’ve seen under President Obama. Yet, he survived nicely.
Others have, too. The secret is not in the numbers alone, but rather, in the trend. With rare exceptions, voters will hold onto a sitting president even with high unemployment figures if those numbers appear to be dropping. In Reagan’s case, the unemployment figures steadily fell as he made his way toward re-election, so that by November the rough days seemed a distant memory to many voters.
This pattern suggests that President Obama does not in fact have to bring unemployment down below 8, 7 or 6 percent if he wants to keep himself out of the unemployment line. He just has to get it moving convincingly in the right direction.
After all, look at it this way. We all put up with bosses who may not be ideal — often through long, hard times at the office — as long as we believe they can keep us gainfully employed. But many workers will revolt in a heartbeat against a boss whom they fear is endangering everyone’s employment, even if their jobs are secure for the moment.
So lowering the unemployment rate is the goal; but in terms of re-election, bending the trend may suffice.
– CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360°”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”
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