Political Animal


June 02, 2011 11:25 AM Presidents, unemployment rates, and context

By Steve Benen

This New York Times piece is generating some chatter this morning, but some larger context is in order.

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.

Seventeen months before the next election, it is increasingly clear that President Obama must defy that trend to keep his job. […]

Ten presidents have stood for re-election since Mr. Roosevelt. In four instances the unemployment rate stood above 6 percent on Election Day. Three presidents lost: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. But Ronald Reagan won, despite 7.2 percent unemployment in November 1984, because the rate was falling and voters decided he was fixing the problem.

There’s nothing incorrect about any of this. Every president since FDR who’s won re-election has seen an unemployment rate below 7.2% (though the casual relationship is sketchy). Will the unemployment rate be below 7.2% by Election Day 2012? It would take a miracle that almost certainly won’t happen.

But the context matters here. No president since FDR has won with a high unemployment rate because no president since FDR has had to govern at a time of a global economic crisis like the Great Depression or the Great Recession. The U.S. has seen plenty of downturns over the last eight decades, but financial collapses are fairly rare, produce far more severe conditions, and take much longer to recover from.

In other words, Obama has a good excuse. Of course the unemployment rate won’t be below 7.2%. Under the circumstances and given the calamity Obama inherited, that’s impossible.

The more relevant question is what Americans are willing to put up with. In 1934, during FDR’s first midterms, the unemployment rate was about 22%. The public was thrilled — it had come down considerably from 1932. By 1936, when FDR was seeking a second term, the unemployment rate was about 17%. How can an incumbent president win re-election with a 17% unemployment rate? Because things were getting better, not worse.

That’s obviously the challenge for President Obama. The 7.2% threshold is largely irrelevant — comparing the current economic circumstances to what other modern presidents have dealt with is silly. The more relevant metric is directional — are things better or getting worse by the time voters head to the polls, and if worse, who gets the blame.

Update: Dana Houle makes an excellent point about sample sizes: “Since FDR only Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush’s have been elected president and then sought reelection. It’s hard to draw big conclusions from a sample of seven. Since FDR, only three times has a president been up for reelection when the unemployment rate was as high as 7.2%. Two of those presidents-Carter and Bush I-lost. The other, Reagan, won. For those who weren’t counting, that a sample of three.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Homer on June 02, 2011 11:37 AM:

    In 1940, unemployment was at 14.6%.

    So another way of looking at is that, since 1936, there have been 6 elections invovling an incumbent where the unemployment rate was 7.2% or higher and the incumbent won 3 (FDR 2x and Reagan) and lost 3 (Ford, Carter and GHWB).

    I agree with your causal connection point, Steve. Sounds like the American voters liked FDR and Reagan and weren't too keen on the other 3. But not sure what predictive value, if any, this has for Obama.


  • Holmes on June 02, 2011 11:38 AM:

    We know the Republicans will do anything to prevent the unemployment rate from dropping with a Democrat in the White House, but I get the feeling many of the people in the private sector are willing to do the same thing.

    Obama should have recess-appointed people to fill the Fed board of governors vacancies long ago. That was a mistake of his own making.

    At this point, I'm not sure what else Obama can do. Perhaps Treasury can drop the HAMP charade, and use Fannie/Freddie to get more involved in fixing the housing market. Using the specter of prosecutions as leverage to force the banks remedy underwater mortgages could help.

    Sadly, I think we're f'd.

  • Joel on June 02, 2011 11:39 AM:

    Do you think it also might matter who Obama's opponent will be?

  • DAY on June 02, 2011 11:40 AM:

    Everybody Knows that the President is directly responsible for the unemployment rate!

    And we Also Know that tax cuts create jobs- because the Republicans tell us so!

    And there is the Republican bumper sticker: Cut Taxes- Create Jobs.

    Sadly, it just might work. . .

    thicesso 3815: Also sadly, Captcha is reduced to trying to fool us with numbers!

  • jjm on June 02, 2011 11:47 AM:

    I am not the least bit concerned that the rates (pseudo) "predicted" re-election for presidents after Roosevelt.

    But Obama is in a situation much more similar to Roosevelt's than to to Carter, Ford and GHWB. He isn't presiding over a slowly declining economy, as under Bush the First, which was not headlines new.

    Instead, he is presiding over a bad economy that is headline news every day. And people see he is trying to fix it, and getting opposed at every turn by Republicans who are beaming about a bad economy to ensure he's a 'one term president.'

    Sorry but the public can see through them. They even saw through GHWB...

  • June on June 02, 2011 12:01 PM:

    I would also be interested to know how many Presidents since FDR have had to deal with a Republican Party whose singular goal is to economically crush the nation on behalf of their own quest for power.

  • August J. Pollak on June 02, 2011 12:03 PM:

    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.

    Pseudo-statistics like this are just annoying. There have been 12 presidents since FDR. Discounting Obama, who hasn't faced re-election yet, as well as Truman and LBJ, who only had one election each since they were VPs who took office after their predecessors dies, and then JFK, who died before he could run again, that leaves 8 who don't face any type of anomaly. 5 were re-elected (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush); 3 weren't (Ford, Carter, Bush Sr.)

    "Precedents" in an event that at best happens once every eight years without an anomaly is really hard to accumulate legitimate data on. None of this is to imply that the terrible economy isn't a HUGE problem for Obama, and if Obama loses I imagine the economy would be what does him in, but there's so much more to it than unemployment percentages.

  • walt on June 02, 2011 12:06 PM:

    I understand any positive initiative Obama proposes will be sandbagged by Republicans. I get that it's unfair and this may be the most compelling political story of modern American history. We have a major political party doing everything it can in order to keep the economy bad in order to reap the political gain. That said, politics is about persuasion, anger, mobilization, and winning. If Obama loses next year, it will happen because he failed these basic political tests. You don't go around vapidly hoping that things improve so you can eke out a second term only to confront the same band of nihilists. Maybe Obama hopes Republicans will wake up. Earth to the president: they're zealots. Nothing but crushing them politically will do that and you're still hoping that playing nice will make them come around.

    I hate saying this but Obama may be the most overrated political practitioner since Thomas Dewey.

  • T2 on June 02, 2011 12:08 PM:

    as we've noted, the Republican plan to do whatever they can to harm the economy/job situation is obvious. And yes, they do a great job of getting the Media to shield them from blame for it. Under the situation, there is not much more Obama can do than what he's been trying. Oh sure, a grand WPA-type plan to repair the nations highways and infrastructure, or build high-speed rain would employ millions who need work now just to pay bills. There is no way the GOP will allow that.
    And when 2012 comes around and the GOP candidate (whomever he or she or it is) continually hammer Obama on unemployment, with the shield of the Media, he'll not be able to do much more than promise to keep trying if re-elected.
    And if he loses, the lucky GOPer will take office and spend the next four years blaming Obama for the unemployment rate, with the shield of the Media. To put it bluntly, today's Republican Party is really screwing this country.

  • Daniel Buck on June 02, 2011 12:08 PM:

    Worth pointing out that of the three who lost, all suffered under other factors -- Ford: Watergate residue & Nixon pardon; Carter: sourpuss personality & Iran hostage debacle; George H.W. Bush: Ross Perot's 3rd party candidacy.


  • boffo on June 02, 2011 12:09 PM:

    Thanks for this one, Steve. The causal assertion in the NYT article is, as you've deftly pointed out, deeply flawed.

    It's about the trend, not a relatively arbitrary threshold. If the employment trend is not good, Obama's reelection chances decrease. If the trend is toward growth (and perhaps even only incrementally so), Obama's reelection chances are better.

    By the way, there's a little bit of irony in the NYT's article about Obama. Prior to Obama, there had never been an African-American president... I think that underscores that historical context is often important and instructive, but it is almost never prohibitive.

  • bandit on June 02, 2011 12:13 PM:

    " Obama has a good excuse."

    It's all he has. When does the time for excuses end?

  • James at home on June 02, 2011 12:26 PM:

    for bandit @12:13 -

    The time for excuses ends when the GOP becomes an actual partner with the Dems to produce good legislation that would support an economic recovery, not just "give our high and mighty friends more tax cuts from the pockets of the poor and elderly."

    The GOP is intentionally thwarting any attempt for a true economic recovery.

    And by the way, Mr. GOP legislator - Where are the jobs you promised?

  • Holmes on June 02, 2011 12:32 PM:

    What is your prescription for fixing the economy, Bandit? And it has to policies that can get through congress.

  • Quaker in a Basement on June 02, 2011 12:43 PM:

    Why is the metric elections when unemployment "topped 7.2 percent"? Isn't that a rather odd break point?

    Maybe it's because Ronald Reagan won re-election when unemployment was...can you guess?...7.2 percent!

    This is a clear instance of using statistics that sound objective and analytical to reinforce a preferred narrative. If the writer chooses 7 percent as the breakpoint, his lead doesn't sound quite so dramatic and compelling: "Only Ronald Reagan won reelection when the unemployment rate was greater than 7 percent."

    That would wreck the underlying premise that unemployment is the primary issue before voters and they will blame Obama if the rate doesn't fall to an arbitrary number.

  • meady on June 02, 2011 12:53 PM:

    I see this as an attempt by the media (NPR had a similar story this morning in which Mara Liasson contemplated how difficult reelection will be if unemploment is still high) to make this into a horse race. I don't think it is. The media talking points are out as well. The media is not reporting on events or policies or circumstances. They are trying to sell papers. Attempting to make the Presidential race more competitive (in theory) will sell more papers...

  • Zorro on June 02, 2011 1:48 PM:

    Assuming that it is indeed, impossible for President Obama to enact policies that will drop the unemployment level below 7.2% before 11/12, the GOP will quickly pillory him for his inability to do the impossible.

    This is, of course, b/c GWB achieved the near impossible feat of moving from surpluses as far as the eye can see + a thriving economy to deficits as far as the eye can see + a near collapse in 6 years. And, if Shrub can pull off the near impossible, then why can't Obama, huh?

    And, of course, the SCLM will buy into this frame unquestioningly,

  • Scott Farris on June 02, 2011 5:39 PM:

    The real bellweather for presidents who fail to win re-election is whether their parties are unified behind them. Over the past 100 years, five presidents have failed in their bid for a second term; a sixth, LBJ, began to seek re-election and then withdrew. Five of those six faced strong intra-party challenges in their bid for re-election. Theodore Roosevelt challenged Taft, first for the GOP nomination and then as a third-party candidate; LBJ was shocked by the support Democrats in New Hampshire gave to Eugene McCarthy; Ford was nearly denied the GOP nomination by Reagan in 1976; Carter had to fend off Ted Kennedy in 1980; and G.H.W. Bush first faced a strong challenge from Pat Buchanan in 1992 and then lost substantial support to Ross Perot's third party bid. The only president not re-elected who did not face a strong primary challenge was Hoover in 1932 and he had bigger problems.

    No sample of presidential elections is going to be large enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but Obama should be heartened he has kept his party mostly unified behind him. That certainly seems more important to his re-election prospects than a rather arbitrary number for unemployment -- especially if the trend is towards higher employment, no matter what the unemployment number is.

  • Doug on June 02, 2011 8:25 PM:

    It's a matter of perception; as long as things are either getting better, no matter how slowly, or at least aren't getting any worse, Mr. Obama will definitely be re-elected.
    Even should the Republican/Teabaggers actually manage to destroy the economy of the US during the hostage negoti..., I mean debt ceiling talks, there's at least a 50-50 chance of Mr. Obama's re-election. Much, of course, would depend, regardless of what actually gets through Congress, on what Mr. Obama TRIES to do in response to an economic catastrophe. Again, perception.
    Any Republican/Teabaggers (or soi-desant "progressives", for that matter) who expect a bad economy in 2012 to be the death knell of Obama's Presidency might want to find out the answers to the following:
    What party controlled the House as a result of the elections in 1928?
    What party controlled the House as a result of the elections in 1930?
    What happened between 1928 and 1930?
    Any attempt by the Republican/Teabaggers to deliberately ensure a bad economy in an attempt to win the 2012 elections is politically risky at best. Even if electoral suicide for the entire Republican party is avoided, they could easily face another 20-year period of political exile.
    And no, another Great Depression is NOT worth it, not even if it got rid of the Republican/Teabaggers!

  • Rip on June 03, 2011 12:37 AM:

    Actual numbers aren't going to matter in 2012. Obama only loses if enough of the voting public thinks that the Republican candidate can do a better job on the economy, and not just by wall streets metric.

    As it becomes increasingly clear to moderates and swing voters that the Republican party doesn't really care about the overall economy, let alone the impact on working class Americans, a variation of '72 becomes more likely, where it doesn't matter who the candidate is, voters will not trust the Republicans to be in charge, especially as the Republicans are unlikely to nominate someone as fundamentally decent as George McGovern.