May’s job numbers were pretty dismal—just 54,000 private-sector jobs gained, and the unemployment rate up a tick to 9.1 percent. All signs point toward a very slow recovery on the jobs front, and so the conventional wisdom arbiters in Washington right now are asking: Can Barack Obama be reelected if the unemployment rate is still 9 percent? Winning under those circumstances would defy history and logic. Obama has to hope that today’s Republican Party is so ahistorical and illogical that at the national level it’s on the verge of making itself unelectable.
Nate Silver had an interesting and lengthy post up at Five Thirty Eight on Thursday slicing the matter, as is his wont, six ways to Sunday. He opens by quoting the attention-getting line from Binyamin Appelbaum’s New York Times article Wednesday that “no American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.” That is true. But as Silver notes, why leave out Roosevelt? After all, Obama has presided over the second worst financial crisis in modern American history, after FDR, so it makes some sense that FDR might serve as a yardstick.
Throwing Roosevelt in the mix, we now have a president who was reelected with unemployment rates well higher than 7.2 percent. FDR won in 1936 with the rate at 16.6 percent, and in 1940, when it was 14.6 percent. (In 1944, with a war economy, the rate was just 1.2 percent.) So there goes the 7.2 theory.
But: Both of those 1936 and 1940 numbers were lower than when Roosevelt took office. So at least he could campaign saying he brought the number down. And this is the crucial thing. Barring some really extraordinary and unforeseeable chain of events, Obama will not be able to say that. The jobless rate was 7.8 percent when he was sworn in.
So let’s say it’s 9 percent in November 2012. That’s 15.4 percent higher than the day he took office. Let that sink in. That’s an awfully tough number to sidestep. The GOP ticket and a thousand surrogates will be on television constantly driving that number home, and why shouldn’t they? That’s about as heavy as campaign artillery gets. It’s a special gift to the GOP candidate both because it happens to be true and because given the American public’s general economic illiteracy, with enough repetition, millions of Americans will walk away from their televisions thinking that the unemployment rate is 15 percent!
The trouble for Obama doesn’t end there. Remember, we elect presidents state by state. And different states have different economies. So we really should be looking at state jobless numbers. There are a few pieces good news for the president here. Virginia stands out: a state he won and very much hopes to win again, which has just a 6.1 percent jobless rate. Iowa, just 6 percent. Minnesota, which could be in play if the Republicans nominate Tim Pawlenty, has a rate of just 6.5 percent.
Just as the Democrats seemed to have lost their moorings in 1972, so it may be that in 2012 Obama will benefit from a heavy dose of Republican Crazy.
Of the 19 states at or above the national average, 11 were Obama states in 2008. They include some states he’s not going to lose under any non-fantastical circumstances (Rhode Island, Connecticut), and others, notably California, that aren’t quite that certain a lock but are pretty close. But consider these cases: Michigan is at 10.2 percent. Mitt Romney has Michigan roots. Florida is at 10.8 percent. North Carolina, also 10.8 percent. Take those three away from Obama: poof, 60 electoral votes. (Ohio, somewhat surprisingly, is below the national average, at 8.6 percent, but that’s still a worrisome number and higher than when Obama took office.)
Some incumbent presidents have won reelection with a higher jobless rate than when they came in, though each comes with its own asterisk. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, mauled Adlai Stevenson twice, but even the “higher” Eisenhower rate in 1956 was really low (4.3 percent). George W. Bush survived a 1.5 percent increase in the rate, up to 6.8 percent by November 2004, but beat John Kerry largely because he successfully made the election about other things (9/11, wars, orange alerts).
If any historical example can provide comfort for Obama, it’s Richard Nixon’s. Nixon was reelected with a jobless rate that had crept up nearly 2 points (although to a rate still quite low by our standards: 5.3 percent). He benefited, of course, from an opposition party that went a little cuckoo. I don’t mean for a millisecond to equate George McGovern, a great and noble senator and a war hero, with some of these third-rate hysterics now peopling the GOP. But just as the Democrats seemed to many middle-of-the-road Americans to have lost their moorings in 1972, so it may be that Obama will benefit from a heavy dose of Republican Crazy.
For my part, I think that at 8.5 percent or so, if we’re gaining at least 300,000 jobs a month by next fall, the president ought to be able to make a credible case that we’re finally headed in the right direction. But every bleak month like this one makes a hypothetical month like that one sound pretty far away—and there are only so many months left.
Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.